The franchise in the UK has grown and developed through time. Most notably, recently, 16-17 year olds were given the right to vote in devolved elections in Scotland and Wales. However, turnout remains problematic in the UK, with turnout at the last General Election being just 67.3%. One of the potential solutions to this may to introduce compulsory voting. So how does this work in other states, does it improve participation in politics and should it be introduced in the UK?
Which countries have compulsory voting?
A number of states employ compulsory voting. These include:
Australia – The law in Australia requires all citizens to vote in national and local elections and has done since 1924. If a voter fails to vote in the election, they can face a fine. The size of the fine varies depending on the type of election, but the maximum fine for failing to vote in a Federal Election is $180. Turnout in Australia is very high, with a turnout at the last federal election of 90.47%.
Belgium – The law in Belgium requires citizens to participate in all elections, including EU elections. All citizens in Belgium are automatically registered to vote as soon as they turn 18. If they fail to vote in the election, they may be fined. The maximum fine for failing to vote in a federal election is €50. Turnout in Belgium is high, with 88.3% voting in the most recent federal election.
Luxembourg – The arrangements in Luxembourg are very similar to that of Belgium, however, the maximum fine for non-voting is bigger, with fines of up to €250 for failing to vote in national elections. Turnout in Luxembourg is also high, the last national election in Luxembourg saw turnout of 89.66%.
Has compulsory voting ever been considered in Britain?
Voting has never been compulsory in Britain. However, it has been briefly considered.
Speakers Conference 1944: In 1944 a Speaker’s Conference was held around the subject of electoral reform and compulsory voting was discussed but with no recommendations made.
Home Affairs Select Committee 1997: In 1997 a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report called ‘Voter Turnout’ in which compulsory voting was considered and some of the arguments for and against the measure were put forward. However, the Committee concluded that:
“Our view is that while it may not be desirable to have any form of compulsory voting we nevertheless consider that there should be a public debate over this, bearing in mind the much higher rate of voting in democracies where such a system exists.“
House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee 2015: The Constitutional and Political Reform Committee considered the issue in their 2015 report on voter turnout. They recommended that the Government carry out a further report into how compulsory voting might work and whether it should be considered in more detail. The Government did not carry this out.
What might be the arguments in favour of compulsory voting?
Some of the arguments in favour of compulsory voting might include:
- It has a positive impact on turnout – There can be no doubt that compulsory voting can increase turnout. Indeed, before compulsory voting in Australia turnout was around 60%, but it is now regularly at over 90%. Not only does it increase turnout overall, but compulsory voting makes it much more likely that underrepresented groups will have higher turnout. In particular, voting from low-income backgrounds is likely to be much higher under compulsory voting. This consequently forces parliament to listen more carefully to such groups in their decision making.
- It increases the legitimacy of the vote – Just as low turnouts can impact the legitimacy of an election result, high turnouts can help to increase it. High turnouts given a stronger mandate to governments as they can been seen to be elected by a larger proportion of the population.
- Voting is civic duty – There are a number of civic duties that citizens are expected to partake in. The most prominent example is jury duty, which most adults will be summoned for at some time in their life. It is accepted that the justice system cannot operate without citizens performing this duty, so there is an argument that the political system cannot adequately function without citizens doing the same.
- It encourages citizen education – Compulsory voting can lead citizens to become more engaged with political issues and the broader political process. If citizens are required by law to vote, they may consequently engage themselves more in political discussion which is good for the political system as a whole.
- It reduces the influence of money in politics – The influence of money in politics is problematic in political systems all across the world. Compulsory voting can limit its impact as politicians are forced to appeal to all voters and not simply those most likely to vote. This means that wealthy interests can not have the disproportionate interest that they currently do via funding parties and the targeted advertising that follows from this.
- Political Parties will become more inclusive – If people are required to vote it will force political parties to try to appeal to a broader range of voters. Parties will no longer be able to rely on a set of core supporters. Consequently, political parties are likely to become more inclusive.
- It hurts the chances of extremist parties – Extremist parties tend to succeed only when turnout is low. The higher the turnout the more likely it is that extremist views will be drowned out by mainstream ones. Therefore, compulsory voting can significantly enhance the chances that extremist parties will fail electorally.
What might be the arguments be against compulsory voting?
Some of the arguments against compulsory voting may include:
- It infringes on personal freedom – There is a clear argument that compulsory voting infringes on freedom of expression, a clearly established right in a liberal democracy. Just as voting is a choice, so it deciding not to exercise their right. In Britain there is a long history of negative freedom and that the government should not routinely force people to do something they do not want to do unless there is an clear necessity. Whilst many people may not vote because they are apathetic, others may choose very deliberately not to exercise their vote.
- It may lead to uninformed voting – Whilst compulsory voting may increase turnout, this does not mean it is the ‘right type’ of turnout. Many of those being forced to vote who otherwise would may not might be likely to cast an uninformed vote that does little to enhance the political process. Whilst low turnout out is an issue, artificially high turnout may cause problems of its own.
- It is difficult to administer and enforce – Compulsory voting is difficult to administer and enforce. Indeed, in those countries that have compulsory voting there are often very few fines issues. In addition, the cost of securing the convictions where cases do go to court can be considerable and it is not clear it is helpful when held up to a cost-benefit analysis.
- It may lead to unfair focus on the disengaged – Under compulsory voting political parties may be forced to cater for the interests of floating voters and the least politically engaged at the expense of those who would participate voluntarily. This leads to the most politically engaged being more marginalised.
- Low turnout is a useful metric – Whilst it can be frustrating, low turnout can be a useful metric for a political system in assessing the strength of its Politics. Just as high turnout can be celebrated, low turnout needs to be reflected on and may be indicative of deeper concerns with politics that may not be addressed if compulsory voting covers them over.
Compulsory voting is a mechanism that is not widely used internationally, however, where it is, it clearly has a positive influence on turnout. Nonetheless, there are other considerations to be made and higher turnout does not necessarily mean a stronger democracy.
Franchise – The right to vote in an election. The franchise has changed and developed through time.
Compulsory Voting – The notion of forcing a citizen to vote in an election with punishments for those who do not.
Floating Voter – A voter likely to move between parties as opposed to a core voter that is always likely to support a particular political party.