Fixing Democracy - Who Votes?

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

In this series of articles I will aim to pick apart and suggest relatively simple alternatives to current democratic tools used in the UK's democracy. The aim is to show how it is not just our politicians that are broken, but the systems that they operate in. Today's topic is compulsory voting. Democratic legitimacy is the concept that a large amount of people in a country should support a person and their ideas in order for them to be entitled to lead. Arguably UK governments struggle to obtain democratic legitimacy for two reasons: the way that we vote and who votes. I have already discussed the way that we vote in the first part in this series (linked here) so we must now turn to who votes in elections, but choose not to.

For a government to be legitimate, it needs the full support of the people which rests on the premise that people will exercise their democratic right. In UK elections we have a clear problem of low voter turnout. For example, in the most recent EU elections, only 36.7% of registered voters voted. This arguably undermines the legitimacy of the MEPs elected. For example, the Brexit Party won 31.6% of the vote but this was only representative of the 36% who voted so actually only 11% of the potential electorate voted for the Brexit Party. The same is, of course, true for the other parties and candidates voted for. This argument, alongside other factors such as the voting system and issues of the day, is used to discount the relevance of smaller stakes elections in being indicative of the results in a general election. In general elections (when the country votes for its members of parliament) voter turnout is still consistently below 70% which again presents problems for the legitimacy of parliament.

Contrary to this, some would argue that if a person does not vote, they have essentially forfeited their voice and therefore the only people that matter are the people who use their voice; therefore concluding that a low turnout does not necessarily cause a lack of democratic legitimacy. However, even if this is true, it is hard to argue from a democratic perspective that it is a bad thing for more people to be voting.

So what's the solution to this problem? The answer is, of course, compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is used in 27 countries around the world (for example Australia introduced it in 1924) and legally mandates that anyone on the electoral register votes. Breach of this usually results in the non-voter being subject to a fine or punishments such as being unable to work in the public sector - although in practice only 11 countries around the world enforce it. This ensures a high turnout and the candidates to have full democratic legitimacy. It also, in theory, results in people becoming more engaged in politics and the political process. People will know that they have to go down to the polling station so may as well cast an informed vote rather than spoiling the ballot paper or voting at complete random. The advantages of compulsory voting are clear, and especially when combined with a superior voting system which create a fully representative opinion and that opinion being put into place.

So why has compulsory voting not been implemented in the UK and what difficulties do people have with it theoretically and in practice. From an ideological perspective, it is argued that the right to vote clearly comes with the right not to. People shouldn't be forced to engage in a system if they feel (rightly or wrongly) alienated from it. There are also issues of groups of people who ideologically refuse to participate in politics (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses). However most of these problems can be remedied by adding an option on the ballot paper which allows you to vote for no one. Compulsory voting is about helping to encourage people to get to polling stations and not controlling their vote, so this box would be necessary for compulsory voting to be democratically viable. This can be used to represent a lack of opinion but makes clear that people are making a conscious decision in their lack of vote, rather than being lazy or forgetful.

From a more pragmatic and perhaps brutal perspective, there is a chance that compulsory voting may cause more people who are ill informed to vote. Lots of people use a lack of knowledge as an excuse not to vote however if they really feel like they are unable to make the choice they can always use the "none of the above" box which should come with compulsory voting. From a more optimistic perspective, compulsory voting should encourage people to educate themselves about politics, rather than excusing themselves from not engaging. This kind of political engagement could make people feel more involved in their country and community as a whole and can only be seen as a positive thing. According to one survey 87% of Australians said they would probably or definitely vote even if compulsory voting was not a part of their system - a number significantly higher than the UK’s recent electoral turnouts.

So drawing everything together compulsory voting would prevent a lack of democratic legitimacy and make sure that everyone is engaging with the political system. It has the potential to improve political education in the UK and would create a fuller image of the opinion of the electorate.

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