Debate: Compulsory Voting Would Not Enhance Democracy

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Given the consistently low turnout in elections within the UK, at just 65.1% in 2010, it would be easy to see how compulsory voting could be looked upon favourably. In reality, this is far from the case as forcing the electorate to vote can often bring about more problems than it solves.

Voting itself is a civil right; one which we should be free to abstain from if we so wish. The introduction of compulsory voting would be an infringement of this and make the right to vote a duty instead. Whilst some argue we have an obligation to vote, as Ian Kearns did in 2006, this compromises the decision of many not to vote in order to express their opinion. An individual’s decision not to vote in an election speaks volumes about the state of the electoral system, in some ways more than a vote itself. Additionally the nature of a political campaign and an election implies that candidates should work to persuade the electorate to vote for them and trust them; by making a vote obligatory it detracts from the work they must do in order to achieve this. A guaranteed turnout means some parties will benefit from those who make a rash decision when it comes to marking their ballot papers in the polling booth.

If the electorate is forced to vote, their votes can become meaningless. Those who would rather opt out of the electoral process instead make “donkey votes”; a vote made for the sake of it. This in itself does not help democracy. These votes, made at random and with little insight into what they are actually voting for, can skew the results of a vote and leave the politicians with a murky idea as to what the electorate truly want or need. Therefore those who vote simply to fulfil their duties do not always reflect the true opinion of the population as a whole. These votes make up between 1% and 2% in countries such as Australia and Belgium who have both implemented compulsory voting in 1924 and 1892 respectively. Whilst there is the argument that those who do not wish to vote could simply ruin their ballot paper, this can be similarly unhelpful. A spoilt ballot paper cannot enlighten the government as to why the voter is unhappy, simply that they do not agree with the system.

The argument for introducing compulsory voting is often due to the low turnout yet this should not always be viewed negatively. It is a highly useful insight as to why individuals are not voting or do not trust the system. By simply forcing the disgruntled electorate to vote it is ignoring the problem at the centre of the system explaining why they do not want to be involved in the first place. Compulsory voting would not help the problem of voter apathy. In a country such as Switzerland which holds three to four referendums a year, the turnout hovers around 40-50% and whilst compulsory voting would increase the number of individuals who voted, it wouldn’t solve the problem as to why the other 50% of the electorate were not voting in the first place. It would be more useful to try to raise the turnout in each election through encouraging voters to vote voluntarily as this would suggest that the political system had become more appealing or accessible to the general public. Many in the UK who don’t vote feel that their vote is worthless, particularly in stronghold constituencies, hence suggesting that this issue should be tackled as opposed to forcing voters to place their vote.

Along with voter apathy are the financial and administrative implications of compulsory voting. In Australia, which has had compulsory democracy for over 90 years, there are fines for each individual that does not vote nor has a valid excuse. The fine of $20-$70 is charged following the poll day and a consistent failure to vote can lead to a court hearing or prison sentence. Although the latter two are rare, the task of punishing all those who do not vote leads to a substantial amount of administration work, more so than in a non-compulsory vote. This can take resources away from the police which could be much better spent elsewhere. Those who accepted the fine accounted for 5% of the electorate in Australia at the last election suggesting that even under threat of a criminal charge, there are those who still wish to abstain from voting.

It can therefore be said a system in which voting is compulsory not only undermines the level of representation within the electorate through the skewing of results by individuals making random choices, but also doesn’t increase the basic interest in politics; it can instead just cover up underlying problems within a political system.

Article by Liz Saul. Edited by Vicky Shreeve.