I’ve long been in favour of copying Australia and making voting compulsory. But there’s a great new idea from Guy Lodge and Sarah Birtch that voting should be made compulsory for first-time voters in the first election in which you become eligible to vote. Over time, no one in Britain could say they have never voted.
Like jury service, voting should be one of those things we do as a democratic duty, rather than something we take for granted as one of our own rights. Even if you don’t buy that argument, there’s a very strong case for using compulsion to help redress the balance in the UK’s turnout inequality.
Turnout in this week’s elections is likely to be low - but the growing inequality in turnout is more worrying than falling turnout itself.
According to Ipsos-Mori, at the last general election, 76 per cent of voters from the top social class (AB) voted, whereas just 57 per cent of voters in the bottom social class (DE) did. This social-class gap has tripled since 1992.
The age-gap is even more striking. Just 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010, while 76 per cent of those aged over 65 turned out. Until ‘granny tax’, the grey vote had been sheltered from the manifesto busting “we’re all in this together” austerity. Why have manifesto pledges on tuition fees been broken but on free TV licenses, bus passes and winter fuel payments, they have been kept?
Mandatory participation in elections is more widespread than many realise. In approximately a quarter of the world’s democracies, including Belgium, Australia and much of South America, it is mandatory to attend the polls. Not all of these states actively enforce the legal requirement to turn out on election day, but among those that do, enforcement is usually underpinned by means of small fines.
Evidence (pdf) suggests there would be no overall partisan impact of such a move because parties would alter their appeals to reflect the changed composition of the electorate.
Calls for compulsory voting are commonly met with the objection that it is a citizen’s right to choose not to vote. But first-time voters should be compelled only to turn out and should have a ‘none of the above’ option, much like the ‘re-open nominations’ option common place in student union ballots.
It’s time to take another look at compulsory voting and first-time voters are the best place to start.