The Right Not To Vote

The right not to participate in the democratic process should not preclude you from your societal rights and responsibilities

On my routine train journey to work yesterday I passed the time as I always do, by reading the news and keeping up with current affairs. In doing so, I stumbled across the news of a Bill that had just been introduced to the Commons by a certain Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitchem and Mordem. The Electoral Register (Access to Public Services) Bill proposed that if people don’t register to vote then they won’t be eligible for benefits and state services. The very notion of this struck a rather dissonant chord with me, and the first question that came to mind was “what if I don’t want to vote?”

Our modern society is build on liberal freedom and democracy, and the idea that our government can coerce us into doing something we might have no intention of doing otherwise simply doesn’t mesh with these fundamental principals. To develop an aggressive democracy isn’t going to encourage people to vote: it simply takes away their freedom to choose not to vote. In this representative democracy, if people are disillusioned with politics enough to choose not to vote, then that is their prerogative. What is the point of forcing people to register to vote if they have no interest in voting?  On her website, McDonagh claims that mandatory voter registration will make it easier to solve crimes and prevent fraud, as the Electoral Register is the most comprehensive database in Britain. Up until this point, I was naïve enough to believe that the Electoral Register is only used to see who is eligible to vote.

Despite the claim that this Bill is designed to reduce crime and fraud, it is obvious that this Bill’s main purpose is to act as a recruitment drive in a vain attempt to remedy the decline in voter numbers. Should the Bill pass, it would serve as a stepping-stone towards compulsory voting, an idea that I am not comfortable with. McDonagh went on to claim that ‘new Government plans’ would drastically reduce the number of people on the Electoral Register, and ‘a third of the population will lose their right to vote, notably disadvantaged groups like low income households, private sector tenants, young people and people from ethnic minorities.’ Her Bill is designed to prevent these people from creating a ‘new underclass’. However, I disagree with her reasoning, as I believe that McDonagh’s thinking patronises this potential ‘underclass’ that she claims to be protecting, by assuming that they’re too dumb to know how the voting process works. Therefore, according to her own statistics, McDonagh just labeled a third of the British population as too stupid to vote.
If people want to register and vote, then that is their choice. If people are unsure about how to register themselves to vote, then there is a Government service that they can call to find out how to do it. However, threatening people with the removal of their services unless they register is not a valid tactic for combating voter apathy in the UK. The main reason that people don’t enroll on the Electoral Register is that they have no interest in voting, not because they’re tax frauds or criminals who are trying to resist capture. Every individual is given the opportunity to register and vote, and they should be given the freedom to exercise that right as they see fit.

A particular gem from McDonagh’s speech when addressing the commons was “If you don’t want to live in a democracy and play by our rules, fine. But they shouldn’t expect to get the rewards of living in a democracy in return.” Just because I might not want to vote doesn’t mean that I’ve renounced my citizenship. I’m still a British taxpayer, therefore I’m still entitled to the services that you’re threatening to take away from me. I still live in this democracy, it is my choice if I wish to participate in the democratic process. My right to choose not to vote is just as fundamental as my right to vote.

Ben Wolfe is a third year politics and war studies student at the University of Wolverhampton. When not studying politics he is often found playing guitar or indulging his Football Manager addiction

1 COMMENT

  1. Before they introduce compulsory voting (or it’s sneaky little brother – punishing non-voters), there are plenty of softer options they could try. Moving from a single polling day on Thursday to both days of the weekend (actually, why not make it a whole week?) would make a huge difference to turnout.
    And of course, reforming the electoral system to something like STV, where people would feel their vote made a difference, but the Lib Dems made a pigs ear of that so we’ll have to wait a generation at least.

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