Compulsory voting: turnout is not the problem

You can lead voters to the ballot box, but you can't make them vote how you want them to.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘I, for one, am driven to a reluctant conclusion: our democracy is becoming obese, the body politic grows fat and sluggish, through under-use and lack of vigorous exercise.’ (1) So UK pensions minister Malcolm Wicks summed up the official view of Britain’s ‘apathetic’ population – stupid, lazy slobs who simply cannot be bothered to get off their lardy arses and make it to the polling station once a year or so.

Little wonder that Wicks has become the latest member of the compulsory voting campaign, which is based on the notion that if people cannot be persuaded to vote they should be forced to. As Wicks puts it, people have forfeited the right to vote, so now they should be punished by being made to do so: ‘Why should someone be allowed to exercise all the rights of citizenship – the right to the welfare state, the right to benefits etc, without being required to exercise a complementary duty, the duty to vote?’

No doubt those within the government who have been pushing the more softly-softly anti-apathy buttons will be dismayed by the nakedness of Wicks’ shrill contempt. Claims that the ‘Apathy Party’ is made up of ‘a coalition of the cynical, the disaffected, and the sad’, which ‘includes the “you’re all the same” tendency, the “sorry, mate, I’m too busy” caucus and the “nothing to do with me” alliance’, must be something of an embarrassment for those who prefer to couch such sentiments in therapeutic proposals to help people feel more included, and make it easier for them to vote. Nor does Wicks’ claim that ‘To a man and a woman this victorious coalition achieves something that Hitler never secured: the undermining of British values and the erosion of our democratic infrastructure’ flow smoothly in New Labour lingo.

But Wicks is only saying what all those bemoaning voter apathy really think: that the problem with democracy today is that people cannot be bothered to vote, and that the solution is to get more of them to do so. From proposed gimmicks such as internet voting or polling booths in supermarkets to the desperate pushing of postal voting for all in the most recent election, all these measures designed to boost falling turnout have had the character of desperate techno-fixes, designed to cajole more people into voting – no matter whom they may be voting for (so long as it’s not the BNP).

From here, it is only a short step to calling for compulsory voting. If democracy is really dying because people aren’t turning out to vote, surely it is sensible simply to make them vote. As London Times columnist Simon Jenkins put it, many acts of citizenship are compulsory in the UK, from local taxes to jury service to signing an electoral register. ‘It is hardly a leap towards Leninism to ask those on the register to complete a subsequent postal ballot’, extrapolates Jenkins. ‘There can always be a box for “none of the above”.’ (2)

Jenkins, like many proponents of compulsory voting, points to its unproblematic use in Australia since 1915, and in certain European states. Apart from the fact that, as an issue of democratic principle, there is a problem with turning voting into a duty rather than a right, to introduce compulsory voting in Britain 2004 is very different to the Australians making use of their century-old system. Forcing people to vote because politicians have given up on persuading them to do so is hardly the basis for a healthy democracy.

The main problem with compulsory voting, however, is that the problem is not the turnout in the first place; and boosting the turnout is not the solution. Britain’s democratic crisis is one that it shares with its European and North American neighbours: the isolation of the political class from an increasingly disengaged public. This is not a formal problem that can be solved by people ticking boxes, but a profound question of political legitimacy. Politicians might be elected; but increasingly, elections raise the question of what this actually means.

Make no mistake about it: the main UK parties’ obsession with voter turnout is not motivated by some great love of the public. In any other respect, the parties clearly prefer engaging with anybody – journalists, charities, celebrities, PR people – to having to talk to the fat, sluggish British electorate. But given that politicians’ entire reason for being rests on having been elected to do certain things for the interest of society, it helps if they are actually elected by the population, rather than applauded by a handful of self-selected politicos.

When the UK turnout at the previous European elections, in 1999, hit a low of 24 per cent, and turnout at the last general election plummeted to 59 per cent, this understandably struck fear into politicians’ hearts. Something Must Be Done! they cried – and so began the barrage of anti-apathy campaigns to which we have recently been subjected.

But now, something even worse has happened – at least from the standpoint of the political elite. UK turnout at the European election was up, to 38 per cent – a fact tentatively reported as a victory for the anti-apathy campaigns. Yet all this meant was that larger numbers of people turned out or wrote in to stick two fingers up, not just at the government, but at any political party with a hope in hell of running the country. Increased turnout coincided with a victory for anti-politics: more people engaged in the act of expressing their frustration and disengagement.

In such a climate, a move towards compulsory voting could only mean more of the same. Forcing people to vote won’t revitalise politics, or restore the legitimacy of an isolated political class. Nor, to the chagrin of the anti-apathy campaigners, will it ensure that people vote for the ‘right’ politicians or parties, raising the spectre of more UKIPs and BNPs. What if they held an election, and everybody came – but only to tell politicians what to do with their ballot papers.

(1) Call for Compulsory Voting, Scotsman, 15 June 2004

(2) Democracy is dying; we must be forced to vote, The Times (London), 9 June 2004

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Topics Politics


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