Rebecca Lowe Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I’ve never been excited about Australia before. Sure, it has Paul Keating, head-kicking Shiraz, and quite attractive people. But now I find my interest growing to the extent that I’d better reconsider something I’ve always opposed. If compulsory voting has been good enough for the Aussies since 1924, then why not for us?
The challenges that our world faces offer an opportunity to re-examine the fundamentals of politics; the existential criticisms currently directed at our political practices make such examinations essential. Compulsory voting leads us to questions at the heart of this reappraisal. Why do we vote? Why should we? Is it a right, a duty, or both? What does it mean when the composition of those voting in a country’s elections differs substantially and systematically from its full electorate? Do the results of democracy matter in themselves, or is it simply a mechanism to enable justified decision-making?
In his Times column (£) last week, Philip Collins suggested that “mandating the mandate” could help “politics to start the long haul back to respectability”. Centring on the societal benefits of upping the voting rate, he argued that this would end the tradition of expedient politicians focusing on the politicised few (privileged older people, who aren’t interested in important stuff like increasing the housing stock and the poor’s access to it).
Turnouts in UK general elections have decreased since World War Two – but this isn’t a simple story of decline. Between 1945 and 1997, the rate didn’t fall below 70 per cent, and was often pushing on or above 80. It dropped significantly in the run-up to the millennium, yet has increased in each subsequent election. Moreover, the higher turnouts of the EU and Scottish referendums (72 and 85 per cent, respectively) show that political participation isn’t dead. As Collins points out, however, sample size isn’t everything.
This is typified by the Brexit vote, in which certain segments of society were seriously underrepresented – the young being the classic example (only 64 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, as opposed to 90 per cent of over 65s). Ok, our constituency-based elections are more representative, in some senses, than those using a single electorate. But Collins is undeniably right when he says “we have policies designed to appeal to the people who vote”. You can prove this in three words: Triple. Lock. Pensions.
So why don’t people vote? The traditional explanation relies on opportunity costs: if the costs of you voting are greater than your expected gain, why would you? After all, those costs typically increase for people with less economic and social capital. And the assessment of likely gains is biased by awareness of the ridiculously small chance of your vote being decisive. Sure, there are convincing ‘threshold’ arguments that explain why we might nonetheless care about being part of a collective win – but it’s easy to understand disillusionment.
If our overall aim is to refine the representative nature of government, however, we have options aside from coercing people to vote. And although it’s usually assumed that introducing compulsory voting forces a country to improve its civic education, that doesn’t necessarily follow: improving civic education might be better seen as a method for upping voting rates than a happy by-product of having done so by force.
Whilst Collins claims that “compulsory voting is not a device to change the result”, his argument does rely on what he sees as the instrumental improvements such a policy would bring. Maybe it’s a rhetorical point, but who’s to say that forcing the young to vote would fix the housing problem? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘the justice of compulsory voting’ concludes that “the empirical literature so far shows that compulsory voting gets citizens to vote, but it’s not clear it does much else”. Even if it did, we’d still face the unintended consequences of having enforced democratic participation.
Enforcement is an important consideration. Many countries with compulsory-voting policies do not penalise the non-compliant. (And in some, like Australia, it’s not strictly voting that’s compulsory – just the submission of a secret ballot, which can be spoiled, thus leaving essential room for protest.) But others use disenfranchisement as a penalty. And if our starting point is that voting is a base right in a fair society, then making that right dependent on the fulfilment of certain obligations is unfair. Yes, the franchise is already removed from prisoners, and, sure, children can’t vote. But those examples don’t help us here: maybe they’re unjustified themselves, or depend on different reasoning. Rights might justifiably be removed from prisoners as punishment for crimes so severe that they need to be locked up to protect – or send a message to – society. We wouldn’t want to apply that treatment to non-voters, would we?
Enfranchising only those who use their vote would also prop up the idea that voting is done for one’s own good. And taking away the right to vote from those who don’t exercise it doesn’t exactly instill a sense of value: ‘if you can’t be bothered, don’t, then you won’t have to!’ Fines or community service could be used instead, of course, but the implication remains that the right is contingent on voting practice rather than membership of society.
None of this truly addresses why democracy might be valuable in itself – and valuable as something that depends on and upholds the very idea of free choice. Britain has a tradition of democracy, and Britons choosing not to vote are not, typically, making a stance against that. We must consider why they aren’t voting, and why we want to persuade them to.
Collins says the loss of freedom that would come from making voting a legal obligation rather than a privileged choice would be “trivial”. Superficially, it’s hard to disagree with him; as he points out, “not all of life is voluntary”. And of course there are times when it’s necessary to use the law to enforce good behaviour. I might think it’s ok for the state to make you put your rubbish in the bin because I don’t really care that you’ve not chosen to do so for yourself. But I care so much that you’ve chosen not to vote, that I’d try anything to help you want to take that opportunity – rather than resorting to making you. And that’s the attitude our society should take: enforcement might be a last resort to consider, but thankfully we’re not there yet.
Seeing something as a privilege can afford it greater value; choosing to do something can make you take it more seriously; rights that are contingent on fulfilling certain responsibilities are not fundamental. Yes, we need to assess whether our democratic mechanisms are working fairly, and to what extent our voluntary participation is essential. But, primarily, that means deliberation not hasty coercive action.