How do you get people to vote? Force them to when they're young
Turnout in Thursday's local elections looks set to be the lowest in years. Early estimates suggest that just one in three voters went to the polling stations. Bad weather in parts of the country will no doubt have played a role in keeping some voters at home, but clearly this doesn't account for the worrying levels of political disaffection reflected in the low numbers choosing to vote.
However, it is not the overall level of turnout that should concern us most. The far bigger problem facing British democracy is the growing inequality in turnout: electoral participation is falling fastest among the young and the least affluent, which gives well-off and older voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box. According to Ipsos-Mori, at the last general election, 76% of voters from the top social class voted, whereas just 57% of voters in the bottom social class did. This social-class gap has tripled since 1992.
The age gap is even more striking. Just 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2010, while 76% of those aged over 65 turned out. Worse still, there is now clear evidence of a "cohort effect": younger voters who don't vote today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age.
Unequal turnout matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voting groups. Spending cuts in the UK, for instance, have disproportionately affected the young and the poor – precisely those groups that vote with least frequency. So we should not be surprised that the education maintenance allowance has been scrapped, while free TV licences and bus passes for those over 65 have been protected.
More worryingly, unequal turnout unleashes a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation for those groups for whom participation is falling. As policy becomes less responsive to their interests, more and more decide that politics has little to say to them.
This cycle can only be broken by radical means. IPPR research shows that the best way to boost political participation among "hard-to-reach" groups is to make voting compulsory. Mandatory participation in elections is more widespread than many realise, and is currently practised in approximately a quarter of the world's democracies, including Belgium and Australia, though in no case is voting itself required by law; rather what is mandatory is attendance at the polls. Not all of these states actively enforce the legal requirement to turn out on election day, but among those that do, enforcement is usually underpinned by means of small fines.
But compulsory voting is controversial. A more realistic approach is to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. These young voters would be compelled only to turn out – and would be provided with a "none of the above" option.
The logic behind this proposal is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible are considerably more likely to vote throughout their lives. Introducing an obligation for new electors to turn out once would thus go a significant way toward breaking the habit of non-voting that often gets passed from generation to generation, and could have a substantial and lasting impact on turnout.
Adding a small measure of compulsion to our electoral process could go a long way toward righting the balance of British electoral politics, which has tilted toward the grey and affluent vote in recent years, as it would oblige politicians to speak to new sections of the electorate and develop policies to suit the needs of those groups.