Compulsory voting: time to think again?

Faced with the problem of an historically low turnout, Gavin Whenman asks what we can do about it. Is compulsory voting the answer? And / or an extra bank holiday?

Turnout in the 2005 UK General Election was 61.4% of the electorate, up on the 2001 figure (by 2%) but still historically speaking very low. Such a low turnout undermines the legitimacy of our elected politicians and disconnects them from the concerns of their constituents. If they know that certain demographic groups are more likely to vote, for example the elderly and the middle class, they will listen to that group more than they will listen to the other groups, for example young people and the working class.

On Thursday 14th September 2006 the Hansard Society are launching the second publication in their Democracy Series, which asks if compulsory voting is “A solution to low turnout or just papering over the cracks?” (Press Release: http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/node/view/623)

Forcing someone to do anything against their will is something the Liberal Democrats are ideologically opposed to, unless there is an overriding public policy reason to do so. Arguably, such a reason exists, as compulsory voting could increase political participation, political accountability and political engagement, thus strengthening our democracy.

The term “compulsory voting” is something of a misnomer, as most advocates of compulsory voting are not actually in favour of forcing someone to vote for a candidate or party, even if they disagree with all of them, but instead imposing upon all citizens a duty to cast a ballot, which can be left blank or with the option “none of the above” ticked. Thus the idea that with the right to vote comes a right not to vote remain intact.

There is also an argument that the right to vote is in fact more than a right, it is a civic responsibility or duty – the duty of the voter to decide who will run the country seems reasonable as s/he will be the one that will benefit (or not) from the new government. Like the relationship between taxes and public services, why should a citizen be allowed to ‘free ride’ on an electoral choice they hadn’t made – we expect someone who doesn’t pay their taxes without good reason to be pursued and bought to justice swiftly partly because we don’t want them to be benefiting from public services they haven’’t paid for. Perhaps the same should apply to the relationship between voting and public policy decisions?

The state already forces citizens to do many things which infringe on individual freedom but which are recognised as necessary in order to live in a better, more cohesive, stable society: jury duty, the obligations to pay taxes, compulsory school attendance, and many others. And if polling day was designated a public holiday than compulsory voting might in fact be seen as one of the least troublesome of all these obligations – if return for a day off work you have to spend half an hour casting your ballot. Or you could even cast your ballot by post and spend the whole day at the beach or in bed.

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32 Comments

  • Unchased Man 12th Sep '06 - 9:54am

    One of the reasons given for why Fair Votes will raise turnout is that it would dramatically reduce the large number of areas where politicians no longer compete for votes because the result is a foregone conclusion.

    In the absence of Fair Votes, we should be looking at changes which support grassroots political campaigning instead of the Electoral Commission’s instinctive distrust of politicians and their active supporters.

    Just one step in the right direction, before the last resort of compulsory voting would be a switch to weekend voting (all weekend). This was piloted in the early New Labour electoral experiments, but was deeply flawed because all the national coverage of the elections suggested it was all over by Friday, so the pilot areas rather had the wind taken out of their sails.

    We know that knocking on doors raises turnout. All political parties are doing less of it – most noticeably on polling day. Perhaps it would help if polling day campaigning wasn’t the reserve of those committed/obsessive enough to dedicate a day of their annual leave each year to elections?

  • Gavin Whenman 12th Sep '06 - 11:48am

    “There is no evidence at all that compulsory voting would improve participation, as opposed to the appearance of participation.”

    In fairness, there’s no way to prove that a lack of compulsory voting improves participation, it’s not really something you can measure in any concrete way. What you can do, is look to, not only turnout – people that collect the ballot paper – but the number of people that actually cast a vote (not a distinction in the UK, but a distinction in countries with compulsory voting). And here, there is evidence that more people cast a vote.

    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it carefully consider the different policies and manifestos.”

    That’s possibly a valid point (it’s been made many a time), but people will, inevitably, turn their mind to the proper way they should cast their ballot – if they choose to cast a vote – if they know that they must collect their ballot.

    “Frankly, if somebody can’t tell which, if any, of the parties are not lying to them, and can’t see which policies would be for the best – because it is hard – then for them, not voting is an entirely reasonable decision.”

    I didn’t say it wasn’t. Which is why I wrote:
    “imposing upon all citizens a duty to cast a ballot, which can be left blank or with the option “none of the above” ticked. Thus the idea that with the right to vote comes a right not to vote remain intact.”

    “A civic responsibility is not a legal responsibility.”

    But in some cases (Jury duty, paying taxes) it should be turned into one.

    I agree with Will about the need for further reform of the political system and in the original version of this article (http://oberon2001.blogspot.com/2006/03/voting-more-than-just-right.html WARNING: lot more rambling than this article) I suggested that compulsory voting could be coupled with reform. Although now I think reform should come first before looking to more radical solutions.

  • I’ve always fancied the idea of a lottery for those who turned out – electors could win a year’s discount on their council tax (or a resident’s parking permit).

    Trivial, but a bit more concrete than appeals to civic duty…

  • nigelashton 12th Sep '06 - 2:36pm

    Why make people vote if they honestly don’t care what the outcome is?

    Some people always vote because they consider it a civic duty, others vote because they want a particular party or candidate to win, or to stop a particular party or candidate from winning. Others simply don’t give a toss, so what – that’s their choice just as much as it is my choice to care passionately about politics.

    Anyway, the key factor in turnout is the likelihood that a person’s vote might make a difference. Just look at the difference in turnout between marginal and safe seats. The answer is to have a system where every vote has a chance of making a differnce.

  • jamesgraham 12th Sep '06 - 3:01pm

    I dealt with this issue in an article a few months ago: http://www.new-politics.com/2006/05/05/compulsory-voting/, in particular I’d direct you to Comment #4.

    The elephant in the room that compulsory voting fans don’t like to talk about is the fact that countries with compulsory voting laws have low voter levels of voter registration.

  • Bernard Salmon 12th Sep '06 - 3:18pm

    You say that people who don’t vote should not be allowed an ‘electoral free ride’. I think that is a nonsense expression. It assumes that people derive some benefit by not voting. I can’t see that this is the case – by not voting people are far more likely to end up with someone they don’t like rather than somebody they do.
    And as politically active people ourselves, we sometimes over-estimate the attraction which politics has for people. If somebody can’t see what relevance voting has for their lives, why should they be forced to do so? It is everyone’s democratic right to slob in front of the TV watching Eastenders if they so wish, rather than having to go to a polling station for the charade of placing an empty ballot paper in a box.

  • Andrew Duffield 12th Sep '06 - 6:49pm

    Sunday voting is the less draconian solution. It works well on the continent and doesn’t involve closing schools for the day.

  • Rob Fenwick 12th Sep '06 - 7:26pm

    “Sunday voting is the less draconian solution” – eep! what would God say?

  • jamesgraham 12th Sep '06 - 9:06pm

    Interesting theological question Rob. But how does voting count as “work”?

    Either way, why not split the difference and have polling on both Saturday AND Sunday. That way you aren’t excluding anyone.

  • Andrew Duffield 12th Sep '06 - 9:32pm

    At double time – they’d be queuing up to work! And it would still be cheaper than paying not to educate half the nation’s kids.

  • Papering over the cracks is precisely it.

    Anybody who has to be forced to vote is hardly likely to make a considered choice.

  • Jeremy Sanders 13th Sep '06 - 12:42pm

    This all seems deeply illiberal to me. Surely, in a democracy, there should be a positive right not to vote, just as much as there is a right to vote. To choose not to vote is as legitimate a choice as to choose to vote for any of the candidates. If someone looks at the candidates and genuinely doesn’t care who wins, why should they be forced to make an arbitrary choice. If none of the candidates can inspire the voters to make the (fairly small) effort to go and vote, that’s the candidates fault, not the electors.

    I’m also somewhat dubious about Sunday voting. Perhaps 30 or 40 years ago it might have been possible to argue that everyone would be at home on a Sunday, and thus able to vote, but that really isn’t the reality any more. There may still be comparatively few people who work on a Sunday, but I suspect there would now be far more people away from home on a Sunday (visiting friends / relatives, taking part in leisure activities, or simply going away for the weekend)and thus unable to vote than would have difficulty in voting on a Thursday.

  • If voting were made compulsory, spoiling your ballot paper must be given real meaning. I have suggested in the past that MPs’ salaries are determined by a formula based on percentage turnout at the last general election MINUS the national percentage of spoilt ballot papers.

    Fixing the turnout at 100pc (compulsory voting) would not allow the system to provide the same feedback as using the actual turnout but the percentage of spoiled ballots could still be used to express feedback on the performance/perception of politicians in general.

    Spoiling your ballot says you are unhappy with the behaviour of politicians as a group. Otherwise vote for the politician or party you admire/respect/trust. Parties that are systemically honest and engaged for the public good will tend to do better than those for which even many of their natural supporters are unhappy with their behaviour. As the national aggregate percentage of spoilt ballots is used to calculate the reduction in politicians’ salaries, it is in all politicians’ and parties’ interests to behave better and there is likely to be an element of self-policing.

    Not a panacea, but probably an improvement on what we have now (and would work even better if voting were not compulsory and politicians were actively encouraged by the weight of their wallets to listen to the voters and do the things that would bring them out to vote).

  • OK, um, how to implement a decent compulsory voting system.

    1) a none-of-the-above/RON box (to measure actual spoiled ballots compared to discontents)

    2) a decent electoral register (it’s estimated that turnout can never be above 90% in most constituencies due to deaths, people moving, double registries, etc – I’ve been, legitimately, registered at 3 addresses at the same time once)

    Given that (2) would have to be linked to some sort of national register of citizens, um, no thanks, unless we’re going to drop our opposition to the NIR?

    I do like Phil’s idea of some sort of salary adjustment, but it would have to be a per constituency thing…

    Hey, that would make safe seats MPs have much lower salaries, and mean that parties would be more inclined to push for every vote, rather than just the median vote. Bugger to implement properly though, especially with irregularities, and you’d be giving a financial incentive to have an incorrect voter register.

    Much better to just bring in STV, acheives all the preferred objectives (including eliminating safe seats and making parties appeal to their broad church not just the median), without any enforced illiberalism.

  • I have previously argued in favour of compulsory voting, and I am now more in favour of it than ever. My own experience, from canvassing and subsequent knock-ups, is that most people do have a view about what they expect from their councillors and MPs. But when Thursday comes, Eastenders takes priority! I am also weary of people who say they support the Lib Dems, but then say that they don’t bother turning out to cast the vote because we ‘won’t win anyway’. Aaargh! I am a liberal, of course, but voting should be a duty for those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy. The move from compulsory voter registration to compulsory submission of a ballot (even a blank one) is not a big infringement of anybody’s liberty, in my view.

    I don’t think that it is necessary to change polling day (since polling hours are long anyway, and everyone now has the right to choose a postal ballot). One thing I would introduce as soon as possible is internet voting. The technology required is simple enough to implement, and I believe the uptake would be high.

  • Kevin Hawkins 23rd Oct '06 - 10:35am

    I support compulsory voting. There is an assumption by some people that not voting is a positive act – that people are disenchanted with all parties and are protesting by not voting. This is rubbish. All the available evidence is that people don’t vote because they are lazy. The all postal voting experiment shows that if you make it easier for people to vote they will do so. If the “protest” theory were correct postal voting (and all the other suggestions like changing the polling day to the weekend) would have no effect.

    However, there are two ways to make voting compulsory – the carrot and the stick. Do we really want to see tabloid headlines about tearful poor old pensioners being fined for not voting? Let’s not go down that road. Instead let’s pay people to vote (or give them a tax discount which amounts to the same thing). Good citizenship should be rewarded.

    Finally, a message to all those who support the “None of the above” option on the ballot paper. What happens if (unlikely though it may be) “None Of The Above” wins?

  • Kevin Hawkins 24th Oct '06 - 8:14am

    Will,
    I take your point, though when you think about it the only real form of compulsion is if the police and/or army are instructed to drag unwilling voters to the polls. Nobody (I hope) is seriously suggesting that. What supporters of “compulsory” voting are really talking about is some form of incentive. My argument is about whether that incentive is a positive one (as I advocate) or a negative one (a fine).

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