Should we make voting compulsory?

Lizzie Lawless
Author:
Lizzie Lawless

Posted on the 5th April 2019

Elections with low-turnout are not uncommon in the UK, so it’s only natural that questions are often raised on how we can see more voters heading to the ballot box.

Some argue that the key to higher turnout is to simply introduce compulsory voting. Since compulsory voting was introduced to Australia in 1924, turnout has never dropped below 91 percent. While compulsory voting may mask the symptoms, it isn’t a cure for the disease.

The real problem is members of the public not wanting to vote. Many people who choose not to do so because they feel their vote is powerless. And under the current Westminster voting system, they would be right.

Many people choose not to vote because they feel their vote is powerless - and under the current Westminster voting system, they would be right. Click To Tweet

With each constituency having just one MP to represent it, all votes cast for losing candidates are discarded. Additionally, all votes for an MP above what they need to win are wasted too – they do not count towards the final result. Whether an MP wins by one vote or 30,000 it makes no difference under Westminster’s voting system.

In the 2017 General Election there were 22 million wasted votes – or 68% of the total. The result is that a party’s support is often wildly misrepresented in the number of Commons’ seats won.

What’s more, in hundreds of seats across the country, people already know the result. In Britain’s many ‘safe seats’, an election’s outcome is sadly a foregone conclusion.

Why would you turn out to vote when you knew your vote would make no difference? Forcing people to turn out and fining those who do not vote won’t suddenly make their vote matter.

Therefore, it’s no surprise turnout currently suffers as a result– when people’s interests are ignored, they become apathetic. Forcing people to vote won’t tackle the causes of low turnout, merely the symptoms.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Outside of Westminster, most ways of electing parliaments don’t involve wasting so many votes. With a fair proportional system, every vote makes a difference, and parties can no longer dominate for decades without real challenge. The number of seats can actually reflect how people vote.

What else can be done?

In the short term there are plenty of ways to make voting easier.

This could include: introducing voting on various days of the week, rather than just Thursdays; setting up voting stations in convenient public places such as supermarkets, local libraries and railway stations; introducing mobile polling stations to bring the ballot box closer to people, particularly in rural areas; and improve political & citizen education in schools. We can also make it easier to register to vote.

Rather than lowering barriers to citizens’ participation and engagement, the government in Westminster is actually trying to make it harder to vote – the upcoming voter ID trials in 10 local authorities will prevent people without the right ID from casting a vote at the polling station. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Thankfully, both the Welsh and Scottish governments have opened consultations on electoral reform recently and we discussed some of the options in our responses.

Compulsory voting may mask the symptoms, but a fairer voting system that gives voters a voice, automatic registration, and a better provision of information and citizenship education will help to solve the real underlying problem.

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