TOPIC GUIDE: Voting
"Voting should be made compulsory in the UK"
PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015
AUTHOR: Justine Brian
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In November 2014 the UK parliament’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee submitted a report recommending that voting in national elections should be made compulsory [Ref: Parliament.gov], in addition to other recommendations such as developing online voting and extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds [Ref: ITV News]. These calls come in the wake of falling voter turnout at both local, national and European elections in the UK in the post-war period. Since the franchise was extended to all adults in the UK in 1928 (although modern suffrage of ‘one person, one vote’ only came into being in 1948 [Ref: Wikipedia]) turnout reached an all-time low in 2001, with 59.4% of voters turning out, and has been in decline since an all-time high at the 1950 general election [Ref: UK Political Info]. In addition, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee estimates that approximately 7.5 million are not correctly registered to vote, with millions more UK citizens overseas not registered to vote at all, stating that: “These figures indicate a substantial lack of engagement of the public with elections in the UK” [Ref: Parliament.gov]. The UK situation reflects a broader trend across Western democracies, where voter turnout has been in decline. To counter this trend, some see mandatory voting as a way to stem the decline in voter engagement and this is being debated in other democracies around the world, including in the USA and India. In Australia, one of 22 countries to currently have compulsory attendance at polls [Ref: PBS], there is a contemporary debate about whether this process enhances or damages the democratic process. So what are the key issues at stake in the current debate in the UK and elsewhere about making voting mandatory? And what are the causes of a decline in voting amongst electorates in Western democracies? Will compulsory voting re-engage voters or are there more complicated issues to resolve?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
The arguments for compulsory voting
As voter turnout declines, established mainstream political parties are effectively appealing to smaller constituencies of the electorate. Many argue that this is a problem as it means a majority of the populous are not represented in their electoral bodies and as such: “…compulsory voting would have the salutary effect of forcing parties to appeal to all voters, not just the committed base they can motivate to get to the polls” [Ref: Washington Post]. Those who argue for compulsory voting say that it means governments would have a true democratic mandate, from a majority of the populous, and that people would be forced to engage with the political process and not simply reject it as unrepresentative: “People always complain about politicians not representing the people enough. So why not oblige them to do so, by forcing everyone to vote?” [Ref: Independent]. Advocates point out that where there is compulsory voting, such as in Australia, which has maintained a 90% plus turnout at elections, it’s not just compulsory to vote (or specifically to turn up at the polling booth and register, if not actually to mark your polling card) the democratic franchise is increased because the Australian state is required to compile an electoral role of every eligible citizen, meaning, say it’s supporters, that the state must: “…consistently identify and remove obstacles to voting…In countries where voting is optional, even a democratic state has no such obligation to enfranchise its citizenry” and as such: “Compulsory voting is the Australian guarantee of voter freedom, not it’s opposite” [Ref: Guardian]. Beyond the arguments about how to increase turnout percentages, and the practical ways and means this might be achieved, others argue that as citizens we actually have a duty to vote, regardless of the practical obstacles or possibly uninspiring politics. One hundred and one years after the death of Emily Wilding, the Suffragette who stepped in front of King George V’s race horse in 1913 to protest for women’s votes [Ref: BBC History], some advocates of compulsory voting argue that many people have fought and died for the right to vote, and as such we should honour their sacrifice by participating in the democratic process: “…when people don’t bother, men or women, they are taking democracy for granted. It doesn’t matter that you may disagree with all the political parties. You may be thoroughly fed up with the whole political system. If so, then go and at least spoil your ballot paper - draw a silly cartoon on it. Do anything on it (well not quite anything). But at least go to the polling station” [Ref: Telegraph].
The arguments against compulsory voting
Although supporters of a more engaged electorate accept that there are practical solutions to increase voter turnout, they argue that compulsory voting would be both fundamentally undemocratic and, crucially, ignores the reason why modern electorates often seem so disengaged by politics. In the Indian state of Gujarat where compulsory voting, first proposed in 2009 and made law last year, critics of the move argue that such enforcements, although possibly increasing voter turnout: “…do not address the fundamental guiding principle at stake – whether a liberal democracy has any business herding its citizens into a voting booth and forcing them to vote even if it’s supposedly in their own interest” [Ref: Firstpost India]. Those worried with a move towards compulsory voting point out that it removes the right of people to not participate in the democratic process, which is in itself a contraction. One commentator states that: “Opinions may differ on whether greater voter turnout is a good thing, but no one should support policies designed to force people to be free” [Ref: American Spectator]. Another critic states that: “An individual’s decision to not vote is in itself a form of political participation. It does not matter if it based on a lack of political culture, a form of protest, or apathy toward the election’s outcome. The point is that, in a free society, an individual has the choice whether or not to participate in collective decisions” [Ref: PanAm Post]. In the instance of the Australian electoral system, some suggest that criminalising people does nothing to encourage democratic engagement: “Here we have a strange situation where people who are on the roll but don’t vote cop a fine, but those who avoid being on the roll suffer no penalty” [Ref: Australian]. And importantly, others worry that compulsory voting prioritises turnout figures over real political engagement - ignoring the issue of a potentially uniformed electorate: “Maybe the opinions of people who don’t know the first thing about how our system works aren’t the folks who should be driving our politics, just as people who don’t know how to drive shouldn’t have a driver’s license…Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder” [Ref: LA Times].
Apathy or dissolution?
Some point to voter apathy as the reason for the decline in democratic participation, and so posit the need for a change in the way we vote to encourage more people to do so. Weekend voting, the use of new technology, easier methods of registration are all promoted, as is the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds across the UK for the first time. The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently proposed a compromise on compulsory voting, recognising that enforced voting remains unpopular in the UK, and instead suggested: “…a more realistic approach which is to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. Voters would be compelled only to turnout – and would be provided with a ‘none of the above’ option. The logic behind this proposal is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible are considerably more likely to vote throughout their lives” [Ref: New Statesman]. But although it seems as if voter turnout is experiencing an ongoing, steady decline, fuelled by a disconnect with the process, there have been exceptional turnouts in some notable elections in recent years. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw 61.6% of eligible voters turnout, the highest in an American election since 1968 [Ref: Washington Post], and also saw an historic increase in the registration of and participation of voters who are traditionally marginalised in US elections [Ref: New York Times]. In last year’s Scottish independence referendum, high voter registration and turnout broke all known UK records since universal suffrage was introduced in 1918, with 84.5% of eligible voters doing so [Ref: Sky News]. Perhaps these examples and others point not to an apathetic citizenship, but something more fundamental. From this perspective, opponents of compulsory voting suggest that what matters is not ease or convenience of voting, but the need for politics to matter to people’s lives: “The main problem with compulsory voting…is that the problem is not the turnout in the first place; and boosting the turnout is not the solution. Britain’s democratic crisis is one that it shares with its European and North American neighbours: the isolation of the political class from an increasingly disengaged public. This is not a formal problem that can be solved by people ticking boxes, but a profound question of political legitimacy. Politicians might be elected; but increasingly, elections raise the question of what this actually means.” [Ref: spiked].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
BBC news 22 May 2014
Ruth Marcus Washington Post 4 November 2014
Max Benwell Independent 24 May 2014
Van Badham Guardian 21 August 2013
Alice Arnold Telegraph 29 May 2013
Sandip Roy FirstPost India 11 November 2014
Javier Garay PanAm Post 6 October 2014
Fred L Smith American Spectator 25 July 2011
Peter Brent The Australian 30 September 2010
Dr Annabelle Lever LSE 21 August 2014
Economist 1 March 2014
Economist 19 September 2013
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Richard Woods Here is the city 12 December 2014
Tom Elliott Herald Sun 29 November 2014
Kate Crowhurst Telegraph 21 November 2014
Carolyn Lukensmeyer Huffington Post 12 November 2014
House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 10 November 2014
Guardian 5 November 2014
PBS 3 November 2014
IPPR 29 April 2013
Jeff Jacoby TownHall.com 29 October 2012
Richard Darlington Left Foot Forward 3 May 2012
Guy Lodge & Sarah Birch New Statesman 28 April 2012
Victoria King BBC News 24 November 2011
William A Galston New York Times 5 November 2011
Purba Dutt Times of India 17 July 2011
Jonah Goldberg Los Angeles Times 31 July 2007
Jennie Bristow spiked 16 June 2004
UK Political Info
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
ITV News 14 November 2014
Times of India 10 November 2014
Guardian 14 October 2014
Sky News 19 September 2014
BBC News 12 March 2014
Huffington Post 24 January 2014
Independent 26 August 2013
Scottish Express 6 May 2012
New York Times 20 July 2009
Washington Post 15 December 2008
BBC News 1 May 2006
BBC News 4 July 2005
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