Compulsory voting: no sweeping intervention can fix our electoral system

People don’t just stay at home on Election Day because they are lazy or ignorant; they stay at home because they believe the choice they are being asked to make doesn’t matter.

People don’t just stay at home on Election Day because they are lazy or ignorant; they stay at home because they believe the choice they are being asked to make doesn’t matter

Today, the House of Commons will debate a ten-minute rule motion introduced by Labour MP David Winnick on making voting a ‘civic duty’.

In short, on the introduction of compulsory voting, though Winnick has distanced his proposal from the term, proposing that those with religious or other objections would be able to abstain if they registered their abstention in advance or at the polling booth.

Certainly, Winnick is right to look to radical new measures to increase voter turnout. Voter turnout has declined irregularly since the 1950s, despite an upturn in 2010. The post-war turnout of nearly 84 per cent in the 1950 election, or even the voter turnout of over 70 per cent maintained during the later twentieth century, are today aspirational figures.

What’s more, the generational turnout gap has grown significantly, warping the shape of our electorate. Young people particularly are increasingly less likely than others to turn up at the polling booth. In 1964, 18-24 year olds turned out at a rate that was only 0.7 per cent below the average; at the last General Election, young people were 13.2 per cent less likely to vote than the average, and almost 23 per cent less likely than over 65s.

As Ipsos Mori’s Generations research has shown, this is not merely an age effect but a cohort effect, with Generation’s X and Y consistently less likely to vote than previous groups.

Low turnout is a serious threat to democratic legitimacy. An electoral process with low turnout is a process that does not reflect the needs, concerns or the will of citizens. It is the sign of an ailing democracy.

Yet it is also an important measure of discontent with politics, and dysfunction in a representative system. To take the attitude that forcing up the turnout figure through compulsion is the solution to alienation from and cynicism towards our political system is to lower our aspirations for reform.

Such a measure would be an illiberal, heavy-handed and underwhelming response from Parliament to the serious problems within our political system, particularly when new technologies and alternate proposals present such a promising and ambitious alternative.

Jonathan Birdwell will argue in the forthcoming issue of Demos Quarterly that the well-publicised introduction of a ‘none of the above’ option on ballot papers could help drive up turnout by encouraging voters to take to the polls in protest, rather than merely staying at home.

Such an option could increase voter turnout in a decidedly liberal manner that stops short of crude compulsion.

Demos is currently partnering with Bite the Ballot to deliver a youth-focused Voting Advice Application – an online quiz that helps user determine their political affiliation and encourages them to vote – for the General Election. The use of these applications can have a significant effect on turnout, as has been shown in Germany, Switzerland and Finland among others.

What’s more, they are empowering in the truest sense of the word; they give users the information they need to make an informed decision and embolden them to go to the polls. In the UK and many other European countries, the development and promotion of these applications are driven by the third sector.

Yet the example of Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education plays an important role in the creation and promotion of the German ‘Wahl-O-Mat’ voting quiz, points the way to a more ambitious vision for increasing voter turnout.

The state in this country, perhaps through the Electoral Commission and in partnership with universities, charities and independent bodies, could play a similar role and provide the resources and capacity required for a high profile campaign based on education rather than compulsion.

These are just a couple of examples of thoroughly liberal reforms to our electoral system that could drive up turnout.

Ultimately, however, low turnout is not just about the process of voting. It’s about what politicians are offering the public, and no amount of procedural improvements can compensate for the disdain and distrust the public has for our politicians and political parties.

No sweeping intervention can at a stroke fix the broken link between the people and their representatives.

People don’t just stay at home on Election Day because they are lazy or ignorant; they stay at home because they believe the choice they are being asked to make doesn’t matter, or that no party represents a desirable choice. It’s down to politicians to persuade non-voters otherwise, not to force them to vote.

Louis Reynolds is a researcher at the think-tank Demos

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17 Responses to “Compulsory voting: no sweeping intervention can fix our electoral system”

  1. Roger Day

    Change the voting system so people can vote for what they believe in rather than choosing the least worst option.It’s underestimated how the voting system determines the parties policies.We’ve had 35 years of neo liberal hegemony and there has never been a majority of support for this failed ideology in this country.It’s also seen the rise of the SNP and collapse of Labour support in Scotland

  2. AlanGiles

    Mr Winnick obviously hasn’t considered the possibility that if people were “forced” to vote they would probably just spoil their ballot paper, and cause even more bad feeling with the electorate

  3. LB

    They need to be able to vote on an issue.

    If you want more spending on the NHS, then you have to ask the electorate and tell them how they will pay for it.

    Equally, if you want more taxes, you have to ask the electorate.

    If you want more borrowing you have to ask the electorate.

    If you want to cut spending you should have to ask the electorate.

    [Quite what happens when the electorate says no to new borrowing, and no to taxes to pay the debts, is an interesting point. After all, all those debts are off the books]

  4. LB

    So out of interest, you’ve taken 100% of state pension contributions and spent them. Completely socialist to redistribute them.

    How much does the welfare state owe?

  5. robertcp

    I agree but Louis did not mention the elephant in the room. First past the post is almost designed to decrease turnout in elections.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m sure that would be illegal, as it is in Australia.

    (How do you enforce it? Well, I’m sure the government would find a way, such as monitoring twitter for people who said they’ve done so, etc.)

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    “Such a measure would be an illiberal, heavy-handed and underwhelming
    response from Parliament to the serious problems within our political


    ” particularly when new technologies”

    No. See i.e. Schneider. It can’t be made secure, and America shows what happens without a paper-verifiable ballot trail.

    “alternate proposals present such a promising and ambitious alternative.”

    You mean PR?
    We should adopt MMP. The German system works, afaik.

    I want a party of the left to vote for. PR would offer that. So I wouldn’t end up voting for “Arnold Judas Rimmer” as a write-in for Westminster elections.

  8. Guest

    Keep on demanding that what you claim happen is what you get to do.

  9. Guest

    Ah yes, mobocracy, utterly in your interest. Paralyse the government to increase the power of your companies.

    And of course you keep trying to say your off-book debts are the government’s. Socialising your debts.

  10. Mike Stallard

    James here are some pointers:
    1. Both the Conservative and Labour Parties are saying much the same thing: Big State, high taxes, no reforms much and lots of hand-outs. The debt is certainly not being addressed by the current (Tory) government. Mr Miliband completely forgot to mention it.
    2. The EU directives are secret, not reported and nobody knows how important they are. But we assume they are really where most of our law comes from. All parties simply accept them and pass them into law. So why bother to vote for something which is so remote and boring?
    3. In schools there is a broad consensus about what must be agreed: diversity, freedom of expression and thought, peace, university for the compliant. Racism, austerity, bullying, war, imperialism, religion: bad. Both political parties accept this, so why bother discussing it when it is all so very obvious? How are people who question all this treated?
    4. In an era of peaceful prosperity, where everything is nice in UK, why bother to turn out and vote? Politics is irrelevant as the great man said.
    Before dismissing this as unhelpful or even sick, please pause for a moment. Ask yourself if it is true before the delete.

  11. Mike Stallard

    Compulsory voting really works here in Australia. The fine is reasonable and just enough to get people to the poll. The registration is something which I have not investigated. Here is it simply taken for granted.
    How unlike Tower Hamlets!

  12. Gary Scott

    When the chips are down people come out and vote. Look at the turnout in the Scottish referendum! Voters do need genuine choice though. Voters perceive that you ‘couldn’t get a fag paper’ between the three parties and the expenses and paedophile scandals have reduced trust in politicians to an all time low. Politicians need to respond without enforcement, addressing the real problem – themselves. If they DON’T do this parties like UKIP will take us down the path of extremism. Remember, if all the non-voters came out in May and voted BNP, they’d form the next government.

  13. Dave Stewart

    Also please correct me if I’m wrong but Austriallan ballot papers have a none of the above option so there is no need to spoil it. You are compelled to vote (but you also get the day off work to do so) and if you don’t like any of the candidates you vote None of the above and if enough people do likewise nominations are re-opened.

    Everything I’ve heard about the Australian system sounds great. It’s not a panacea but certainly it will help. Getting rid of FPTP would undoubtedly help a great deal as well.

  14. sarntcrip


  15. sarntcrip


  16. Leon Wolfeson

    If you mean it works hard against parties actually properly representing voters…yes, yes, you do indeed don’t need to worry about your low-appeal political parties, since you can force people into polling booths.

    Tower Hamlets is notable as an exception, and would be far less noticeable in Australia.

  17. Guest

    Unhelpful? Sick? No, it’s just flat-out anti-British propaganda.

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