But why is it that we find low turnout ethically troubling?
In our last poll, we asked readers whether it should be made compulsory to vote. Over half (54 per cent) of respondents said that they thought voting (or actively abstaining) should be mandatory.
42 per cent said that the state should not make people vote, and two per cent said they supported compulsory voting, but only the first time round.
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So does compulsory voting work? There are currently only 13 countries, and one Swiss canton, which enforce compulsory voting, although the number which have a provisional obligation is higher.
Advocates may argue that decisions made by government have more legitimacy when higher proportions of the population participate in voting. Mandatory voting could increase engagement with and understanding of politics.
Plus, a democracy means the people should choose their government – and in the best scenario this means all the people. It could be argued that if you want to be counted as a full citizen, then it is your civic duty to participate in choosing who rules.
Opponents say that making voting mandatory may increase turnout but it does not increase political understanding. It also raises questions of liberty; in a 2014 LSE study, Dr Annabelle Lever pointed out that compulsory voting confuses the question of whether governors are there to serve the governed, or vice-versa.
Dr Lever also questioned why we find low turnout ethically troubling. There a variety of reasons why people may decline to vote, and they are not all equally significant. One person may decline to vote because they are not particularly inspired by any candidate; another may feel neglected and ignored by the political system. Apathy and anger cannot be addressed using a single law.
In Australia, where compulsory voting was introduced in 1924 as a means of combating low turnout, studies have shown that 74 per cent of the population support the law. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) says that since 1924 turnout has never been lower than 90 per cent – and uses the UK as an example of a country with low turnout.
Interestingly in the same document the AEC points out the wider problem with the UK’s electoral system:
“The legitimacy of a government formed by a voluntary turnout could also be questioned. In the UK in May 2005, Labour won 55 per cent of the seats with 35 per cent of the vote after a turnout of 61.4 per cent (in other words, 21 per cent of the total possible electorate delivered 55 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons).”
As Josiah Mortimer of the Electoral Reform Society pointed out on LFF earlier this month, the UK electoral system is stacked in favour of certain voters. In 2010, it took over 33,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 35,000 for a Conservative and nearly 120,000 to elect a Lib Dem. UKIP got almost a million votes and no MPs, while the Greens got over a quarter of a million and just one representative.
Until our electoral system favours all voters equally, it seems there is little point in making voting compulsory; it would simply replicate the current inequality on a larger scale.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter
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