A Liberal Democrat Case for Universal Civic Duty Voting

Liberal Democrats are staunchly opposed to the Conservative government’s Elections Bill currently moving through Parliament. Its provisions of mandating photo ID at polling stations and imposing the use of First Past the Post for mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections are actively harmful to democracy and solely for the benefit of the incumbent government.

It should go without saying that this bill is diametrically opposed to our own party’s constitutional and electoral reform policies including the adoption of single transferable vote and removing barriers to exercising the right to vote. However, in the face of undemocratic legislation, we as a party should contemplate advocating for stronger protective measures, namely universal civic duty voting, otherwise known as compulsory voting.

Turnout for British general elections during the twenty-first century has never surpassed 70%. This contrasts sharply with the 90%+ turnout rates in Australia and Belgium, with the former having adopted UCDV in response to low turnout of under 60% at its 1922 federal election. With FPTP skewing results and breeding voter dissatisfaction, no party in the UK having won more than 50% of votes cast since the Conservative did in 1935, governments are formed or decisions made via referenda that reflect the will of only a plurality of the electorate. For government to be more reflective of the will of the people, greater turnout should be encouraged, with UCDV probably being the most effective method of achieving it.

Some may argue that not voting is in of itself part of the right to vote, a valid form of protest or better than voting whilst disengaged or dissatisfied. However, amongst this school of thought are those making such arguments in bad faith for partisan reasons. Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of American right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, once stated that:

They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

This articulates the motivation behind Republican-led efforts in the US to suppress voting rights chiefly through gerrymandering, restricting access to polling stations, postal ballots or ballot drop boxes, purging voters records, and voter ID laws. By mandating the last measure in the Elections Bill, the Conservatives are aping such efforts. The Conservatives are able to target potential opposition voters, and thus discriminate against marginalised groups including ethnic minorities and women, in a simple Act of Parliament as a consequence of voting being optional. For all that compulsory voting may be criticised as undemocratic, would it not be far better than the government of the day to, with impunity, effectively reduce the franchise to its own base?

UCDV would serve as a catalytic electoral reform. Mandating it under the current system would only exacerbate its ingrained failings. For UCDV to be an effective electoral safeguard rather than a hinderance in of itself, further reforms would have to be enacted to remove barriers to voting and to maximise voter satisfaction. Such reforms would include proportional representation, automatic voter registration, early in-person voting, same-day voter registration, lowering the voting age to sixteen, and moving Election Day to a more convenient day of the week. UCDV might actually help to improve British democracy.

Apart from improving politics structurally, UCDV could help to improve politics on a societal level. In part, optional voting under the current system has meant that turnout has primarily consisted of the energised bases of the participating parties as well as those voting tactically against whichever major party they vehemently oppose. This in turn has resulted in political polarisation between the major parties which has alienated millions of centrist voters. As we advocate for STV as a means of encouraging compromise and co-operation between parties, UCDV could serve to fostering moderation amongst and within parties, requiring them to appeal to as much of the electorate as humanly possible in order to win votes.

Most countries that mandate some form of compulsory voting have minimal sanctions or no sanctions whatsoever for non-voting. With the former, penalties can range from small fines such as $20 in Australia to small incremental fines followed by a temporary ban from voting, as is the case in Belgium. In any case, these penalties may be laxly enforced in some jurisdictions with voters being excused for not voting if they have a valid excuse, such as for religious, conscionable or health reasons. As its name suggests, universal civic duty voting is meant to encourage greater turnout by promoting voting as a positive public responsibility, rather than through fear of punishment.

Whilst compulsory voting may be criticised as infringing upon individual liberty as compelled speech, this point should be considered. Although jury service and tax payments are mandated civic responsibilities accepted as essential for any functioning civil society, voting is optional despite its argued necessity. However, from an individual liberty perspective, voters in free multiparty democracies with compulsory voting are not penalised for how they vote, often being required to at least cast a ballot or appear at a polling station. Voters are still able to voice their dissatisfaction with all the candidates or options available by spoiling their ballot, casting a blank ballot, or voting for protest or joke candidates (as is the case in Brazil). UCDV may have to warrant the inclusion of a None of the Above option (or multiple None of the Above Plus options) on ballot papers so that everyone’s views would be fairly represented.

Whilst prior electoral reforms such as female enfranchisement or lowering of the voting age to eighteen may have seemed radical before they were implemented, should that argument be applied to universal civic duty voting?

* Samuel James Jackson has been a grassroots member of the Liberal Democrats, affiliated with the Calderdale branch, since 2017, and is currently studying at the University of Leeds for a Master’s degree in History.

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19 Comments

  • John Marriott 14th Feb '22 - 11:52am

    Having been a ‘ballot spoiler’ for the past couple of years, I would very much like to see on the bottom of the ballot paper a space for ‘None of the above’. I’d even retain that if we ever did get a form of PR. As for compulsory voting, the jury may be out. I’m wondering how non participation would be penalised. If non voters are chased for cash, this might involve a fairly costly bureaucratic effort.

  • I have always been against compulsion in voting; however, with the current regime intent on disenfranchising some of those eager to vote, I’ve changed my mind..

    On the pretext of a problem that doesnt exist they are putting administrative obstacles especially in the way of young and ethnic minority voters..If half that effort was put into ensuring ‘real’ universal suffrage, instead of taking us toward a pre-1969 Northern Ireland system, there would be no need for compulsory voting..

  • Brad Barrows 14th Feb '22 - 1:24pm

    Sorry but requiring people to vote is a completely illiberal position – people should have both the right to vote and also the right to choose whether to use it.

    As an aside, I assume for any compulsory voting scheme to be meaningful it will also require everyone of voting age, and entitlement, to be registered to vote in the first place. So are fines for non-registration also proposed? Will such a scheme then help immigration enforcement in that anyone found by the authorities who is not registered to vote will be required to prove their right to be in the country as part of determining whether they have broken the law regarding registering? Finally, would compulsory voting also extend to UK citizens who choose to move abroad?

  • Kevin Hawkins 14th Feb '22 - 3:32pm

    I would prefer to reward people who vote. If people were paid a small sum (say £10) each time they voted the vast majority would take part. It is sheer laziness for most non-voters not to participate. And if anyone thinks it would be too expensive, I would disagree – the government would simply be taking money with one hand and returning it with the other.

  • john oundle 14th Feb '22 - 6:26pm

    Forcing people to vote is neither liberal or democratic.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Feb '22 - 9:09pm

    Brad Burrows: You can already be fined for not registering to vote
    I am in favour of compulsory voting as long as there is the option to abstain.
    From a purely selfish point of view, imagine how elections would change if you could concentrate on getting our message across without having to dragoon people into voting at all…

  • I agree with the proposals.

    Mandatory voting does not stop you from democratically spoiling your ballot paper if that is what you so wish.

    However, we would see around 95% of the electorate voting with compulsory voting, compared to our current 60-65%. This would force parties to be more eclectic in their policies and ideas in order to be more inclusive of the whole of society, rather than be shackled to their “core vote membership”
    This can only be good for democracy in the longer term as far as I am concerned and I believe it certainly has the potential to force parties to reach out and look after the poor and more vulnerable sections of society and create a fairer society.

    Im all for it

  • No! Forcing people to vote, by law, is one of the most illiberal things I can imagine.

  • Andrew Tampion 15th Feb '22 - 7:19am

    Mick Taylor. What is the point of forcing people to spoil their ballot to abstain when they can abstain in more comfort by not going to vote if that is their choice?
    I don’t like the term Universal Civic Duty Voting because it’s a euphamism. If you want to make voting compulsory don’t hide behind weasel words, be open and honest about it.
    Why do you think that mandating UCDV would exacerbate the ingrained failings of the current voting sysyem?

  • My suggestion is a local lottery that voters are entered into when they vote. Carrots not sticks?

  • People who live in areas where there is no, or very little, political campaigning would no doubt be expected to carefully make a note of when the Election Day is and where they should vote? They then should make arrangements to get to the polling station at the right time? Or of course make sure they obtained a postal vote?
    I was once asked what political parties were for. Especially since they all said the same things.

  • Samuel James Jackson 15th Feb '22 - 12:24pm

    I think that Nic’s suggestion of local lotteries to encourage voting might be a good idea.

    Assuming that our party’s policy of STV were to be enacted, there would hypothetically be 120 or 130 constituencies in the UK. If each constituency lottery were to issue a cash prize, how big should it be? £500? £1000? In any case, it might only constitute a small percentage of the overall budget of holding an election, possibly between £60,000 and £130,000.

    Perhaps the size of a lottery prize could be proportional to the turnout, i.e., the more people vote, the larger the prize will be. This will thus encourage more people to vote.

  • Compulsory voting is an example of using something to disguise a greater evil. A better voting system would do more to increase turn out. In today’s climate compulsory voting would act as an encouragement to all those who oppose any form of obligation and gain support for them.

  • Compulsory electronic voting with lots of referendum as per the Swiss would be more democratic but not very popular with politicians as they would find their power disappearing.

    There also needs to be some connection between incompetence and public service salaries/pensions.

  • There are people who don’t understand or care about politics. What would they do? Vote randomly? How could that be justified?

    There are also people who don’t understand politics but always vote Conservative or Labour. Logically, they shouldn’t vote.

  • I think compulsory voting is a terrible, socialistic idea.

    Imagine a single parent on a low income who doesn’t find time to vote and has no enthusiasm for any of the parties. Are you saying they should be fined?

    And what happens if people don’t pay the fine. Do they go to jail?

  • Neil James Sandison 16th Feb '22 - 7:54pm

    Nic is on to some here with a local lottery to boost participation in local elections .

  • Alex Macfie 16th Feb '22 - 9:57pm

    Compulsory voting is fine if there is a good reason to vote. So if it is implemented, then there must never be any more fake elections like the recent phoney by-election in Southend West.

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