Debate: Compulsory Voting Would Enhance Democracy

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The issue of political participation is a frequently discussed subject in British politics, with many believing it has reached an insufficient level to be considered democratic. Voters show little interest in key issues and, if they do vote, tend to vote mirroring their cultural tastes, such as wage and family background, rather than by using any rational thought. The turnout in recent years has been worryingly low, with only 59 per cent voting in the 2001 election, and only climbing to 65 per cent in our most recent election, despite its importance. The solution to this problem? Compulsory Voting.

Compulsory voting as a solution is often overlooked, but actually when taken seriously it becomes apparent that it can be very beneficial. By definition, an election with a full turnout would be representative of the entire population, creating greater political equality and a more democratic result, and giving the winning government much more legitimacy to rule. There is plenty of evidence that compulsory voting leads to higher levels of participation, with figures in Australia hovering at around 95 per cent, and also the case of the Netherlands when they abolished it in 1970 and their voting turnout fell immediately by around 10 per cent.

There are many arguments that might be made against compulsory voting, and one of which is inevitably going to be that the citizen has a right not to vote. This ignores the fact that rights and powers are indissolubly linked to responsibilities, a lesson that most have learnt from Peter Parker, and that the act of not voting harms the interests of society at large. Most citizens readily acknowledge their obligations to the state in the form of paying taxes, serving on juries and so on, and yet reject the notion of an opportunity to express their opinions on how and by who the country should be managed. In order to please these people who believe in a right to silence, however, in most states where compulsory voting is in effect there is a ‘none of the above’ option for those who disagree with all of the parties. This is a further benefit to democracy as it would help the government distinguish between how much of the population are negatively voting through protest, rather than the current situation of wondering if the low turnout is a result of protest or simply apathy, and possibly do something to resolve this.

The practice of compulsory voting would be easy to deal with; making greater use of postal votes, extending the time for voting to ensure everyone has access to polling stations, unlike the recent situation at Ranmoor Parish Centre and possibly changing to a more proportional system, thus overcoming many of the cynicisms that arise at election time, and all contributing to a more democratic and representative system. In terms of cooperation, the mere existence of compulsory voting would provide this incentive to participate, even with little punishment for non-voters. The fine in Australia is only $20, which hardly breaks the bank, and yet voting figures still remain high, and with the proportional system and this compulsory voting in place, to prove wrong many critics, their system often produces very effective government.

If everyone were obligated to vote, it would encourage more people to become engaged in political affairs and develop more of an interest in the subject, consequently reducing the time and resources used by the political parties in an attempt to obtain the public interest and support in somewhat trivial and impractical ways. Compulsory voting, in this sense, could play a major role in altering the political culture of Britain, in a more socially responsible direction.

In conclusion, small problems may arise when discussing the issue of compulsory voting, but most of them are technical and there are solutions to be found for them. In terms of democracy, creating a culture where one feels obligated to vote and express their opinion is beneficial; it gives the government more legitimacy to rule as it is consequently much more representative of the entire population’s beliefs, especially as one can still choose to abstain by choosing the ‘none of the above’ option. The fact of the matter is that compulsory voting is neither an uncommon nor a recent phenomenon. It is successfully practiced in over twenty states, and has existed in some since the late 1800s. Through this period of time, very few problems have arisen surrounding it. Proof? I think so. Put simply: It works.

Article by Anna Dewhurst. Edited by Vicky Shreeve.