Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right

Voting is a duty, not a right, writes Richard Darlington, head of news at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

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Richard Darlington is the head of news at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

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.

LFF-ballot-boxLike 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.


See also:

Vote 2012: An introduction to the various elections on May 3rd 17 Mar 2012


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.


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47 Responses to “Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right”

  1. Reuben Balfour

    Voting is your duty, not your right – new blog from me on @leftfootfwd argues case for compulsory first-time voting:

  2. StaceyVail

    RT @leftfootfwd: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  3. Marcus A. Roberts

    “@leftfootfwd: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo” <damn straight

  4. Pulp Ark

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right #CleanPolitics #elections #referendums #Vote2012 #muslim #tcot #sioa

  5. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right

  6. Scott Macdonald

    MT @leftfootfwd Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo >> Reasonable proposal. NOTA & compulsory voting.

  7. Martin Coward

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  8. Dean Reeves

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  9. adrian taylor

    RT @leftfootfwd Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  10. SteveB

    Turnout shld be compulsary says IPPR head of news: Brits a bolshy bunch, we don't like being forced to do anything..

  11. Ellie Cumbo

    Ah, that's hit the spot. @RDarlo at @leftfootforward on a new way to look at compulsory voting.

  12. Ellie Cumbo

    Ah, that's hit the spot. @RDarlo at @leftfootfwd on a new idea for compulsory voting,which is more common than we think

  13. John Hitchin

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right | Left Foot Forward

  14. Liz McShane

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right | Left Foot Forward

  15. Shimon

    Not voting for Labour’s antisemitic candidate is a moral and political obligation for anyone committed to social harmony and a healthy democracy.

  16. Eric Greenwood

    Why vote for any party when they are all corrupt and out to screw the voters. How can forcing people to vote be a democracy? So you are going to ask 18 year olds who have never experienced the rubbish that past governments have done. Is that because they think they will be too ignorant to question the government. All this compulsory voting nonsense will do is make people spoil the ballot.. Which is what i will do if it ever comes to compulsory voting. Add to that how will they know who voted will they have a list of voters and who they voted for.

    Shall i vote for people who created the problem (Labour), or the People who have caused more problems (tories and lib dems), should i vote for an independent when you know they wont get in. The problem with voters not voting is the three party system doesnt listen to people, they follow the party line, rather than fighting for their constituencies. The answer would be to let MP’s vote how they want rather than obeying the party leaders.

  17. Anonymous


    Why vote when politicians ignore their promises?

    Why vote when politicians lie?

    How about making it contempt, with similar fines for any politician caught lying?

  18. Iain Hill

    Absolute nonsense. It ignores one thing – the poor quality of what is on offer! Give us the right to cast +ve and -ve votes for as many parties as we choose, and there will be queues at the voting booths.

  19. Anonymous

    I have voted since 1969 council local now assembly national, but in 2010 I gave up when labour became the carbon copy of the Tories with welfare reforms.
    Force me to vote and I would turn my vote into into a protest vote, and it would not be liberal Tory or labour

  20. Patrick

    The only reason you want to make voting compulsory is that those that currently don’t vote, if they were forced, would be more likely to vote for the left and not the right.

  21. Nikki Jayne

    The only candidate who could be arsed to even shove a leaflet through our door was the Tory candidate. If they can’t be bothered to even tell me who they are, what they stand for and why I should vote for them then why should I bother to vote? I tried to find out online who was standing and it was a dead end.

  22. Anonymous

    Why does Labour always want to reduce the freedom of individuals?

    What is wrong with the freedom of NOT voting?

  23. Lynne Sedgmore

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  24. Colin Spiller

    Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  25. Bennwasright

    From earlier: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  26. Ahmad Noor

    leftfootfwd: From earlier: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  27. Woodley Labour

    From earlier: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  28. Meghan Benton

    From earlier: Vote 2012: Voting is a duty, not a right: by @IPPR’s @RDarlo

  29. Democratic Society

    At @leftfootfwd: Voting should be compulsory for first-time voters in the first election at which they're eligible

  30. Mr. Sensible

    I can’t say I am in favour of compulsion.

    What I think first time voters need more than anything is more political education.

  31. Vicky

    That’s fine, but as a young woman with strong beliefs in peace, equality and respect for the environment, there are plenty of elections where no candidate appeals to me. You can’t make it voting compulsory until the candidates mirror the gender, sexuality, race, religion, social class, age, disabilities and variety of beliefs and values that exist in our society.

    To increase turnout would give more mandate to the privileged bunch of stuffed suits we find “representing” us today.

  32. Vicky

    (and i meant to add..) To do that, we need to do something about the mafia of local party executives with their trumped up sense of importance who in my experience are some of the least diverse people ever.

  33. Anonymous

    How about you get fined for your repeated lies?

  34. Anonymous

    No, crushing alternative parties isn’t the answer. It’s precisely what happens – the looser the system under FPTP, the less room there is for more than two parties.

    PR is the answer.

  35. Anonymous

    Really, which candidate is that then? I think you’ve confused your candidate (BNP) with the Labour one there. Livingston’s relationship with my community is troubled, but he’s not an anti-semite.

    I didn’t vote for him as I’m not a centralist, but…

  36. Anonymous

    Oh, so Australia hasn’t done it then. Wait, they have. Smokescreen.

  37. Anonymous

    What voting system is that, precisely, so I can take a look at the workings behind it?

  38. Anonymous

    Welcome to party politics!

    Also, really? Which major UK party, in England, is to the left? Because none of the big three are…

  39. Jasonkent

    Compulsory voting is only enforced in 10 countries in the world and apart from Oz, none are great bastions of democratic freedom – far from it.

    Compulsory voting can drive voter turnouts down by increasing the number of donkey votes, informal votes, blind guesses and unregistered voters. This occurred in Chile which is why compulsory voting was recently abolished there.

    Australia’s voter turnouts (at 81%) are lower than many countries with voluntary voting including Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Malta. And Australia’s turnouts would be a lot lower if you count the high levels of donkey votes, informal votes, and blind guesses. Over 10% of eligible Australian voters are not even registered to vote.

    If you want to empower the electorate and make them feel like their vote matters the last thing you want to do is steal their power away by threats of fines enforceable with violence. That doesn’t empower people, it does the complete opposite.

    If you want to encourage voting it is better to use peaceful means such as education, information and ideas. Choose peace. Choose democracy. Our decision to vote should be democratic. Don’t be tempted to force people to exercise their freedom because then it ceases to be freedom.

  40. Richard Darlington

    Turnout seems to be 32% – the lowest since 2000. See my @leftfootfwd blog on idea for compulsory first-time voting:

  41. Kit Gonzo

    Turnout seems to be 32% – the lowest since 2000. See my @leftfootfwd blog on idea for compulsory first-time voting:

  42. Malcolm Parker

    Voting “none of the above” is a really pathetic way of engaging people with the importance of political representation. Like the wasted opportunity of the voting referendum, regardless of the outcome, all it does is answer a critically important question with a non-sequitur.

  43. cim

    It’s a modified form of Approval Voting. (Or if you prefer, a form of Range Voting with only three possible values)

  44. Anonymous

    Ah, I see. I’m not sure I agree (I prefer a system closer to Germany’s, honestly), but it’s interesting.

  45. cim

    Indeed. And … what does it do? In most electoral systems, ‘NOTA’ has virtually no chance of being elected even if none of the candidates have any significant amount of support (the number of people who like any one candidate is small; the number of people who like no candidates is even smaller), which makes it a useless option.

    That’s the better case. What do you do if it “wins” the election? Options:
    – ignore it and elect the first real candidate: useless AND insulting…
    – hold a by-election (anyone allowed to stand): that didn’t do much good
    – hold a by-election (no candidates from last time allowed to stand): elect the second-best Labour/Conservative has to offer
    – hold a by-election (no parties from last time allowed to stand): go extremists!
    – leave the seat vacant until the next normal election: well, at least there won’t be an expenses scandal

    None of those options seem to do anything particularly useful. (Students’ Unions, where there is a pretty good chance of getting a new and interesting candidate if the first lot get NOTAd, are not a particularly good model for general elections)

  46. Anonymous

    I see, democratic parties are Mafia’s.
    Someone got rejected as a candidate, I’m thinking.

  47. Anonymous

    Introduce PR and voting will soar. Because, you know, it’ll actually matter who you vote for. (I’ve /always/ lived in “safe” seats, my vote’s never had a point in general elections, although I’ve still voted)

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