Compulsory voting is not the answer

Big Ben, Westminster

Labour’s David Winnick has put forward plans to make voting a ‘civic obligation’. The idea is hardly fair in the current political system.

The BBC’s Chris Mason tweeted this on Wednesday:

“Labour MP David Winnick is putting forward plans to make voting a "civic obligation.”

Followed by:

“The proposal has been tabled in a 10-minute rule motion, which will be debated in the Commons on January 14, but cannot become law.”

There is no compulsory voting in the UK, but the idea is seen as one way to tackle dissatisfaction with the political process. 65.1% of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2010. In the last sixty years turnout has tended to be in the high sixties and seventies

Australia and Belgium are just two of the countries that have compulsory voting, with the repercussions of not voting varying from country to country.

Despite this, compulsory voting is the wrong answer to the problem of dissatisfaction with democracy. Take the European elections earlier this year where turnout was abysmally low. The reasons for the low turnout in that election can be explained both by the anti-politics climate in Britain, but more importantly, the lack of interest in EU politics. Brussels seems so far away to Britain. If we want to improve turnout in these particular elections we should encourage citizens to take more of an interest in EU politics. Furthermore, the lack of much democratic accountability in the EU is also part of the problem.

The same goes for local government elections - low turnouts are fueled by a lack of interest.

Real power lies with Westminster, hence why turnout in general elections is so much higher than in others. People vote when it makes a difference.

But the fact of the matter is that if compulsory voting was introduced for these elections, it would be wrong without a fairer voting system. Forcing citizens to vote with the chance of their vote becoming a wasted vote would be ludicrous. A fairer form of voting is needed. A proportional one, and one with a ‘None of the above’ option, or even a very much improved awareness that ballots can be spoiled.

Compulsory voting could work one day, and if turnout for general elections falls as low as other elections then it might be an answer. But the roots of the problem of dissatisfaction should be tackled first - primarily by getting citizens more engaged, but without forcing them to vote.

Take Scotland’s independence referendum earlier this year. 85% of the electorate voted in the life-changing decision. People across the country were engaged on both sides of the debate, showing that people can be more interested in politics. Lessons can be learned from this.

The idea of compulsory voting - or Winnick’s proposal that the practice becomes a “civic obligation” - does not tackle the real problem at its roots. Civic engagement is possible, but let’s do it without making voting a burden.

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