There is a lot to be said for compulsory voting, but is it really the best solution for Britain?
When Athenian democracy first developed in around 550BC, it was considered the duty of all citizens to play an active role in the decision-making process. Although we now have a system of representative, as opposed to direct, democracy in the UK, the sense of voting as a civic duty has endured.
Yet recent years have witnessed a sharp decline in voter turnout at elections, with many now claiming no interest in either local or national politics. For the PCC elections, average turnout was a shocking 15%. It fell as low as 12.31% in the West Midlands, and 11.97% in Staffordshire. At the important local elections earlier this month, turnout was a lowly 30%. At the last European elections in 2009, it was 34.7%.
The statistics for general elections fare better, though even here there is a clear downward trend. The 1950 election saw a turnout of 83.9%, the 1997 election 71.4%, and the 2010 election fell to 65.1%.
When politicians win elections on a high turnout, they can undoubtedly claim a higher degree of political legitimacy and a stronger mandate. This is because the ‘people’ have spoken, rather than merely a slice of the population whose views may, or may not be, representative of the whole.
Certain groups are far more likely to vote than others. Those from the white middle-classes and above the age of 60 vote in high numbers, whereas those from ethnic minorities or disadvantaged backgrounds tend not to bother. This inevitably impacts on government policy considerations and explains why David Cameron is reluctant to tamper with pensioners’ winter fuel allowances and free bus passes. It is political suicide to enact policies unfavourable to those whose votes keep you in power. But if a particular group tends not to vote, then the government has nothing to lose. Therefore, even if we put the moral concept of participation as a ‘civic duty’ to one side, voting is vital even on a purely pragmatic basis.
Another issue is that extremist parties tend to benefit from low turnouts. Despite garnering less than a million votes at the 2009 European elections, this was sufficient to gain the British National Party 2 MEPs. It is also arguable that UKIP (not extremist, but certainly to the right of the political spectrum) only performed as well as they did at the recent local elections due to the low turnout.
Australia has had a system of compulsory voting since the 1925 federal election. People must either vote for a candidate, or, if they do not wish to support either of the candidates available, they may ‘spoil’ the ballot paper. Either way, some form of positive action is required on the part of the citizen, reflecting the notion of voting as a ‘civic duty’. Where enrolled voters fail to cast a vote, they are asked to explain the reason for this. If the individual concerned can provide no satisfactory reason, they must pay a $20 fine (refusal to pay may result in a court hearing). It is worth noting that, though there have been critics of this system over the years, there has been no serious attempt to change it. Australians, it seems, are content with the concept of compulsory voting.
I naturally feel uneasy about the idea of anything being made compulsory. The freedom to exercise personal judgment and to do as we, as individuals, see fit is vital. Yet, it should be remembered that there are already a number of ‘compulsory’ civic duties that are expected of us. We must all pay our taxes, attend school and, if called upon to do so, perform jury service. These existing obligations are far more onerous than a system of compulsory voting would ever be. In reality, the degree of intrusion on our personal freedom would be negligible.
Another benefit of compulsory voting, other than merely increasing turnout, is that it encourages voters to research the candidates’ political positions more thoroughly. Sitting by and exclaiming ‘I don’t do politics’ is not an option because people must vote. They can, of course, spoil their ballot papers. But many will feel that, since they will be turning out to the polling station anyway, why not take a few minutes to see if there is anyone worth voting for? The public therefore become more informed about the major political debates and the key players. Further, when voting is compulsory, politicians are forced to appeal to the electorate as a whole, rather than the narrow sections of society most likely to vote. This means that specific groups, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will be more difficult to ignore.
On the face of it, there is a lot to be said for compulsory voting. Yet, in an ideal world, it would not be necessary to force people to vote. The danger with going down this route is that it addresses the symptom, rather than the cause, of the apathy and low turnouts at UK elections. When people refuse to vote, it is not necessarily because they are lazy, but because they do not feel anyone deserves their vote.
Under compulsory voting, the political class as a whole would no longer have to fight to ‘get the vote out’ since people would no longer be able to stay away. The current problem of political leaders being seen as out of touch could, therefore, be exacerbated.
If turnout continues to decline at UK elections, then introducing a system of compulsory voting should be considered. A Government elected at a general election where turnout was, say, a mere 50% could never claim to have a real mandate. Such a situation would result in widespread disenfranchisement and further disillusionment. Put simply, it would be undemocratic. But before we get to such a point, let us hope that the political class can relearn the art of listening to the people and earning their trust.