The case for compulsory first-time voting
‘I’m not going to vote. They’re all the same and it never changes anything.’ We are sure to hear this response regularly as reporters cover today’s local elections, at which turnout is likely to be well below 40 per cent.
Younger people are particularly likely to feel that voting is a waste of time. ‘Politicians do nothing for us,’ they often say – perhaps with some justification. But do these voters – or non-voters – stop and think why that is.
The fact is that politicians are more likely to prioritise the interests of people who vote than people that don’t. And IPPR’s analysis for a forthcoming report shows that older people are much more inclined to go to the polls than younger people. At the 2010 election, for example, around 76 per cent of 60 year olds voted, whereas turnout among the 18–24 age group was just 44 per cent. So it is no coincidence perhaps that the incoming government, faced with tough spending choices, scrapped the education maintenance allowance but preserved universal benefits for the elderly.
Of course it is just these sorts of decisions that young people point to when they say politicians do nothing for them. But if their response is then not to vote, the vicious cycle of under-representation leading to disaffection leading to further under-representation gets worse and worse.
We’ve got to break this cycle and stop growing political inequality in Britain undermining the health of our democracy. In 1970 there was an 18-point turnout gap between 18–24 year olds and those aged over 65. By 2005 this had more than doubled to over 40 points in 2005. There is also a dramatic social class divide in electoral participation which has been widening in recent decades. In 1987, the difference between the income group with the highest turnout rate and the group with the lowest rate was only 4 percentage points. By 2010 this had jumped to 23 percentage points. People in the highest income group were 43 per cent more likely to vote than those who are in the lowest income group.
So what, if anything, can be done to reverse this worrying trend? In our view the best way would be to introduce compulsory first-time voting. Young people when they turn 18 and become eligible to vote would be required to go to the polling station and either cast a vote for one of the candidates or to tick a box saying ‘none of the above’. Failure to do so would result in a small fine.
This targeted measure would have a number of benefits, which would all be mutually reinforcing.
Firstly, it would help to inculcate democratic participation among young people. The hope would be that having voted once, the habit of voting would become ingrained, and these first-time voters would carry on voting at future elections. This is important because there is now clear evidence that younger voters who don’t vote are less likely than previous generations to vote regularly as they move into middle age.
Secondly, if young people from poorer backgrounds were required to vote this might encourage their non-voting parents and grandparents to exercise this democratic right, thereby closing the political inequality gap between classes as well as generations.
Thirdly, if politicians knew that young people would be voting in large numbers at their first election they could not afford, as now, to ignore their concerns and interests in favour of those of groups who already vote in large numbers.
With the school-leaving age being raised to 18, schools themselves should be the place where young people cast their first vote. Knowing you have to vote could transform the way politics is taught and experienced in schools.
Are there any problems in making voting mandatory for young people? The familiar concern is that it is an infringement of civil liberties. This is what has prevented us from introducing compulsory voting across the board even though we know from other countries that it is successful in boosting turnout. (Approximately a quarter of all democracies in the world today employ some form of compulsory voting, and many have adopted the measure in the last few decades. Turnout in Australia has averaged 94.5 per cent in the 24 elections since 1946.) But our proposal is limited in nature and strikes a balance between freedom and responsibility. It would only impact on young people and this is a group of citizens of whom many things are required.
The fact is that we need to do something to arrest the growing political inequality this country is facing. A number of different strategies have been used to try to break this cycle, but none of them has proved effective. Something more radical is therefore called for. Hence compulsory first-time voting, which in our view could well be very effective in engaging young people in politics and engaging politicians in young people.