In defence of compulsory voting

How growing political inequality threatens our democracy and why a civic duty to vote could make a difference.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The beginning of this month marked National Voter Registration, a campaign run by Bite the Ballot to drive up voter registration. It is certainly necessary; over 1m people have dropped off the electoral roll since last summer, primarily as a result of the switch from Group to Individual registration. Moreover, its innovative campaign seems to be making a mark, with record numbers applying online for electoral registration this week.

Still, such initiatives are not sufficient. While they can increase voter registration numbers, they can’t address an even bigger threat to our democracy – the growth in political inequality, where stark differences in political participation by age and class threaten the legitimacy of the democratic process.

For our democracy risks becoming a gerontocracy; in the UK’s last general election, for example, just 44 per cent of 18-24 year-olds voted, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Moreover, this turnout inequality between old and young has grown dramatically in recent decades.  In 1970, the gap was only 18 per cent; by 2005 it had more than doubled to over 40 points, with only a slight decline in 2010. Worryingly, despite the admirable efforts of groups like Bite the Ballot, polls are currently predicting that 70 per cent of 65+ years olds will vote, compared to only 37 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds.

Profound inequalities in electoral participation are also evident by class; voters in the highest income quintile in the UK were 43 per cent more likely to vote than those in the bottom fifth income group, a roughly five-fold increase since the Eighties in class-based electoral inequality. Many other European countries have experienced a similar surge in turnout inequality by age and income, but the UK is near the bottom of the table.   

The consequences for our democracy are potentially dire. When political inequality is entrenched, politics becomes tilted in favour of high-turnout groups, usually older and wealthier voters, political inequality producing and reinforcing economic inequality. For example, IPPR’s analysis of the 2010 Spending Review, one of the most important fiscal documents of this parliament, showed that the average loss in services and benefits was £1,850 per voter compared to £2,135 per non-voter. As a proportion of the average household income of these two groups the difference is even starker; the cuts were estimated to represent 11.6 per cent of the annual income of voters and a full 20 per cent of the income of non-voters.

Of course, proving the causal link between electoral participation and political decision-making is difficult. Nonetheless, when the average 20-year-old had turnout rate 36 percentage points lower than the typical 70-year-old at the last election, it does appear more than coincidence that younger people have faced, for example, the abolition of the EMA and the tripling of student fees in this parliament, while people of retirement age have seen their pensions triple-locked. This weekend, meanwhile, saw the extension of the pensioner bond scheme until after the election, with a potential £10bn put aside to support a funding scheme only available to those aged 65 or over.

Such policy outcomes moreover, create a cycle of disaffection and disengagement among the politically marginalised, as their views and interests are systematically excluded from debate. As a consequence, representative democracy risks becoming de-legitimatised as the active participation of all the citizenry gradually hardens to a narrow pool of habitual voters. 

Tinkering around the edges won’t revive the idea of democracy, where each citizen’s interest must be accounted for and has a say in collective political decision-making. To arrest the hollowing out of democracy, IPPR recommends voting should be made a civic duty for first time voters, with compulsory attendance at the ballot box. The advantages of such a move are multiple.

Firstly, it would drastically reduce the largest form of turnout inequality, that of age-based differential in voting rates, enhancing the representation of young and often marginalised groups in the process.  In Australia and Belgium, for example, where voting is compulsory, turnout inequality between groups is almost non-existent and turnout rates are consistently in the mid-Nineties. In doing so, it would force politicians and political parties to take account the interests of all voters and inject energy into democratic debate.

Secondly, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that voting is habitual. In other words, if you vote in your first election, it is likely to become the habit of a lifetime. By contrast, if you fail to vote at the first opportunity, this tends to harden in to a lifetime of political non-participation.  Over time, then, we should see generations of people habituated to voting, without necessarily using the heavy-handed approach of compulsion for all.

Third, compulsory voting for first-time voters is not about forcing young people to vote for the status quo. It wouldn’t compel you to vote for a political party – there would be a "none of the above" option. Nor does it preclude working now to build up more participatory, direct and non- hierarchical forms of democratic life; compulsory first-time voting is only one step among many required to revive moribund democracies. However, it will ensure those with the least political voice now have far greater say in how we are governed in the future, making our democracies more representative, responsive and pluralistic.

At present, simply ensuring all are registered to vote is an important task.  However, over the longer term, it is not simply who is registered but who votes that is of chief concern. A civic duty to vote in your first election may appear a radical institutional step in our democracy. However, the alternative – an increasingly divided democracy, with stark age and class based inequalities of voice and participation – means such steps are now urgently required.

Mathew Lawrence is a Research Fellow at IPPR

Mathew Lawrence is a founder of Common Wealth, a think tank designing ownership models for a democratic and sustainable economy.