Compelling arguments

citizenship, democracy, political ideas

Author(s):  Ian Kearns
Published date:  28 Apr 2006
Source:  Public Finance

If next week’s local elections follow the voting patterns of the recent past, even fewer people will turn up to vote. Should some element of compulsion be introduced to reduce this democratic deficit?

If next week’s local elections follow the voting patterns of the recent past, even fewer people will turn up to vote. Should some element of compulsion be introduced to reduce this democratic deficit?

Next week, much of the nation will be going to the polls for the local elections. No doubt the turnout for this will revive the debate within the political elite over declining levels of participation in recent UK elections.

Turnout in the past two general elections was lower than in any other modern peacetime elections. Belief in the efficacy of politics is low, and trust in politicians and the political process is lower still. There is, however, a problem with the character of the current debate.

While most assume that participation is declining in roughly equal measure across all social groups, the reality is that there has been a disproportionate collapse in turnout among the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. To put it another way, we have suffered not just a fall in voter turnout but a rise in turnout inequality.

Policy must address the second problem as well as the first — and the only practical policy that deals with both is compulsory turnout.

The case for this is best made by clarifying the seriousness of our current position. We face a crisis of participation in absolute terms. The 59% and 61% turnout of registered voters in the past two general elections respectively is evidence of that.

But the problem is set to get worse. Age, more than any other factor, is a key predictor of voter participation. In the 2005 election, young people (those aged 18-25) were only half as likely to vote as older citizens (those aged 65 and over).

While this is a worrying statistic in itself, its import is increased by a strong cohort effect. Measured over three elections between 1992 and 2001, each body of voters, when grouped by year of birth, participates less than the group born a decade earlier. The problem, therefore, will not correct itself as today’s young non-voters become tomorrow’s older voters.

Likelihood of voting is also linked to socioeconomic status. Income, level of educational attainment, and type of employment are all strongly linked to voter participation rates. The higher the income a citizen enjoys, and the higher the educational qualifications attained, the more likely it is that they will turn out to vote.

Other measures, such as voting among manual and non-manual workers, confirm this picture of unequal turnout. In the past two elections, the participation gap between manual and non-manual workers has more than doubled.

These trends also clearly affect electoral geography. It is all too telling, for example, that the most deprived area in England contained the constituency with the lowest turnout in both the 2001 and 2005 elections. Liverpool Riverside had turnouts of 34% and 41% respectively.

The attraction of compulsory turnout is that it addresses both declining turnout levels overall and inequality in participation rates across groups. Comparative international data shows that it increases turnout by more than 15% compared with countries where turnout is voluntary.

Crucially, at high participation levels, inequality of participation is almost eradicated since only a tiny minority of the population do not turn out to vote.

There will of course, be opponents of any move in this direction. Some will argue that it is not ethical to compel citizens to vote, others that it would be unreasonable to do so in a first-past-the-post system in which some votes are ‘wasted’. Others still will claim that enforcement mechanisms would be messy and implementation expensive.

But none of these arguments should hold sway. Compulsory turnout is not compulsory voting. Ballot papers can be spoiled or can contain options to vote for ‘none of the above’. A commitment to turnout is a commitment to the public good of our democratic system and not a forced commitment to any political party or politician active within it.

We are comfortable too, with some compulsion in other walks of life such as in jury duty or the requirement to educate our children. Is our democracy not valuable enough to deserve a similar level of backing?

That said, compulsory turnout might need to be introduced as part of a wider bargain with the public. Government, while compelling people to turn out, could promise to make voting easier and also to re-examine the issue of proportional representation, so that every vote could be made to count. It could trial such a bargain in pilot areas.

All of this would take political courage. But our political system rests upon the twin ideas of popular control of the institutions of government and equality of political participation. It is currently delivering neither effectively. Compulsory turnout would help us to achieve both.

See A citizen's duty: voter inequality and the case for compulsory turnout by Emily Keaney and Ben Rogers.