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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