Political scientist Colin Hay dichotomises political engagement ‘cures’ into two broad camps: those that lay the blame for poor voter turnout at the feet of the system (what he terms ‘supply-side’ theories), and those that think the blame lies with the electorate (‘demand-side’ theories). Hay warns that demand-side theories are an easy way out for politicians. If we can dismiss poor turnout as the fault of an apathetic or lazy populace, then there’s no incentive for the political system to change, nor for our officials to accept any of the responsibility.
Compulsory voting, an idea that has gained support recently, falls foul of Hay’s warnings. Whilst unlikely to be the conscious intent of many of its advocates, the policy implies that voters are to blame for poor turnout. It prescribes a cure that blames the individual for the problem, instead of assessing wider social and systemic factors. Our political system has been largely unaltered since we gave women the vote. It would be a mistake for one of the few political reforms in modern times to force people to vote. Indeed, it is quite possible that such a move would merely serve to augment anger and disillusionment with the system, with increased turnout serving only to mask a bitter disappointment with politics and politicians.
The system of compulsory voting certainly seems to have done little to improve trust in political parties or governments in Australia, with their reported levels barely different to other Western countries. Such figures suggest that the deeper problems that lie behind the fragmented relationship between public and politics have been left untouched by the policy of compulsory voting. Indeed, in Belgium, where they have ‘compulsory turnout’ (individuals are forced to go to the ballot but not to actually cast a vote), a study found that, if coercion was removed, turnout would decline by 20%. The author of the study argued that, as a result of their findings, compulsory turnout must be retained. However, surely it merely highlights that this policy categorically fails to foster political engagement beyond a superficial level.
There are better, less authoritarian solutions that we should therefore consider. Political parties seem to desire a 'silver bullet' for engagement; a quick fix-all policy so typical of the mentality of the neoliberal hegemony. The solution is bound to be more complex than this. Voters aren't cattle that can be herded one way or the other by a single, prosaic change. Political engagement is a complex phenomenon, and the unique values, beliefs and motivations of each voter must be respected if we are to understand it.
As Lord Malloch-Brown recently highlighted, the way we vote needs be rapidly modernised. The average time to announce a count has risen in recent years from less than three hours to over five. Moreover, there were numerous issues around incorrect or completely non-existent postal ballots, and a significant number of people cited not being able to find their polling station or knowing how to register as a reason for not voting. Online voting would go some way to alleviating the practical barriers in the way of voting. Whilst many fear its vulnerability to fraud, in the 21st century it is incredible we have yet to seriously explore this as an option.
Same-day registration has been shown to increase voter turnout in US states. It is a policy that also removes arbitrary deadlines that often stop people being able to register just as election campaigns gear up and grab their attention. This would address the UK’s hidden democratic deficit, represented by the fact that one in five people do not register to vote. In addition, a ‘None of the Above’ option on the ballot (one that has the power to force another election if it secures the most votes) would help, by giving individuals a more legitimate and powerful way of expressing their disappointment in the political parties presented to them.
Electoral reform, a poignant issue in British politics at the moment – aside from ensuring a fairer result for those that do vote – would encourage more to join the process. The most common reason cited in a poll by Survation for not voting was that respondents felt as though their vote ‘wouldn’t make any difference’. This could either be explained by the fact that all political parties were perceived to ‘be the same’ (the second most frequent response), or because individuals feel as though their voters are insignificant under a First Past the Post system, especially in safe seat constituencies. Some form of proportional representation would actually alleviate both of these problems, in theory, by eschewing the phenomena of ‘wasted votes’, and by allowing a more diverse range of opinions prominence in Parliament. Research has also found that those electoral systems that lean more towards PR also enjoy higher electoral turnouts.
Above all, we must instil in people what is referred to as ‘internal political efficacy’. We must give individuals the sense that they have the competence, the knowledge and the skill to participate in the political realm. This shouldn’t be difficult: most people are inherently aware of local issues and many have innovative solutions if allowed the time and freedom to express them. Unfortunately, we have a disempowering media that preaches consumer passivity instead of citizen activism, and an educational system that shirks golden opportunities to engage and nurture curiosity and debate. We must invest the time to reinvigorate a sense of citizenship in communities, and shift the focus of political rhetoric away from Westminster and an elite clique of politicians.
Even for those who genuinely fail to vote because they are idle or apathetic, we need to look deeper. Even for the apathetic, does the blame truly lie with the individual? Politicians keen to wash their hands of guilt will tell us so, but how debauched is a system that cannot offer people enough hope to force them out of their apathetic slumber? If our system is so utterly uninspiring and uninteresting to them, do we really think forcing them to vote is the correct solution?
None of these proposals on their own will drastically improve voter turnout. Yet, together, they have the potential to transform public attitudes and our engagement with politics. Taking into account the multifarious policies on offer, compulsory voting seems like a bit of a clumsy, heavy-handed incursion into a complex and highly charged social situation. Electoral reform should always be undertaken with the fundamental aim of empowering the electorate. Compulsory voting does the opposite; it shackles voters; it tells them that they have no choice but to give their support to a crop of politicians that they might well despise. Not voting, for some, is a way of sending a powerful political message. We may disagree with their method of doing so, but we have no right to deny them of it.