Should voting in the UK be made compulsory?
In Britain, although there is a legal requirement for people to be included on the electoral register, there is no requirement to vote in any election. In about 20 countries across the world voting is compulsory by law, although not all of these countries actually enforce the law in practice and some do not apply the rule to voters over 70. Australia does though and those who have not voted receive a penalty notice. Voters can give a reason as to why they have not voted and reasons such as illness are acceptable. If there is no reason given and voters fail to pay the fine they can be prosecuted. In Australia turnout is well over 90% and even in countries where the law is not enforced, such as Belgium and Turkey, the turnout is well over 80%.
Voting can be seen to be a duty of citizens just as jury service and the requirement to pay taxes are civic duties. The state imposes a range of other requirements such as the duty for parents to see that their children are educated and the duty to wear seat belts. Those who do not bother to take an interest in politics are freeloading on those citizens who do take this seriously. Citizens’ rights are not affected by compulsory voting as they can go to the polling station and submit a blank ballot rather than actually vote for any candidate.
It increases the legitimacy of elected politicians if everyone votes. Declining turnout undermines the democratic process, particularly in local by-elections, where turnout in 2014 was mostly around 20 or 30%, and the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, where turnout was 15% across England.
Politicians and parties would have to pay attention to all groups of voters rather than just the better off and better educated who tend to be the ones that vote. Turnout in the 2010 general election was variable between groups. 76% of the over 65s voted but only 44% of the 18-24 age group. Turnout was 76% among the professional and managerial groups but only 57% among unskilled workers. 74% of those who owned their house voted but only 55% in rented housing.
It is argued that if everyone has to vote then they will all pay more attention to politics and what the election issues are. A better informed electorate will make more carefully considered decisions.
Factors that affect elections but are not relevant for voter choice will no longer be significant. Factors such as the weather on election day, whether people can get transport to the polling station and whether employers give their workers the time to vote do not influence elections (although now that anyone can apply for a postal vote these factors have declined anyway). The bigger parties have better organisational resources to get their voters out and so, if voting is compulsory, there is more of a level playing field with smaller parties. Negative campaigning, which the large parties also have more resources to employ, is designed to put off voters of their opponents from voting and so this becomes less effective with compulsory voting.
Forcing people to go to the polling station is an infringement of liberty. Voting is a civic right rather than a civic duty. The religious beliefs of some groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses prohibit them from voting. Voting may add legitimacy to politicians but it should be a choice for voters to decide whether to do this and not a requirement for them.
There is little evidence from countries that have compulsory voting that their electorates are more interested in politics or are better informed than those where voting is compulsory. Politicians are elected with the votes of the least interested and most ill-informed of the electorate and these may be influenced more by the tabloid newspapers. Some voters will make a random choice on the ballot paper because they have to vote.
Politicians are forced to mobilise the people less likely to vote such as the young or those on lower incomes if they want to get elected and so they have to spend more time convincing these people. Compulsory voting under first past the post would probably create safer seats for the large parties as more people that support them end up voting.
The failure of people to vote may indicate satisfaction rather than apathy. It could be argued that the decline in turnout from 1997 to 2001 indicated that many voters were happy with the expected Labour victory and saw no need to vote. The fact that many current UKIP supporters were previous non-voters does not show that they were satisfied but, on the other hand, did not feel that any of the existing parties represented their views.
Compulsory voting is not necessary for a stable democracy. Instead of looking to revive politics and improve the political system, those calling for compulsory voting are shifting the blame for the problems of the system onto the voters.