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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

18. Everyone Must Vote

I recently came across an interesting paper by Heather Lardy entitled 'Is there a Right not to Vote?' in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies.  It deals forensically with arguments against compulsory voting in a general sense but got me thinking about what local democracy might be like in the UK if voting in local elections was made compulsory.

Of course turnout is a big problem for local democracy in the UK.  At around 40% (when there is not a general election at the same time) it is significantly lower than national elections and also lower than in other European countries.  It doesn't help the legitimacy of local government when less than half of those eligible to vote chose to do so.

But what is the alternative?

Well,  voting could be compulsory for all local citizens, fines or even short prison sentences could follow for failure to comply.  It's an idea as ancient as the Greeks and such schemes operate today in countries such as Australia.  Is it really so difficult to embrace?  Citizens have a duty to pay tax, to serve on juries, so why not vote?

There are many ways in which concerns could be dealt with.  So, for example, you could add an 'abstain' option to the ballot, give people the option to vote 'none of the above' or even provide a blank space for people to add in their own preference. 

One idea I like is to pay people to vote.  A surcharge could be placed on the Council Tax to fund a £10 'reward' for every voter.  It would (more or less) act like a deposit scheme for Council Tax payers and redistribute a little wealth for those who are not.

One important benefit of compulsory voting is that it would improve the functioning of local politics.  Parties would need to revisit their electoral strategies and ensure that their policies appealed to all voters - not just those might be expected to vote voluntarily.  Hence politics should be more inclusive and promote a fairer society.

update: another article here but I haven't read it yet...


Kris Witherington said...

I've been a fan of compulsory voting for some years. The principle for me is that it changes the expectation on people and would prompt them to thinking about who to vote for. A none of the above option would allow voters to reject the politicians and send a clearer message than simply not turning up. Of course it would help if elections were rationalised with all local govt on the same day, perhaps along side the parliaments in Wales, Scotland, NI and the Mayor in London.

Not too sure about linking voting with tax rebates, especially as many of those least likely to vote are also less likely to be paying council tax - young people, those on benefits. I can see a rebate simply rewarding the status quo.

The 2010 election did give me some cause for hope. A much higher proportion of young people voted than in previous elections and I wonder if this reflects that this was the first generation to vote who came through schools teaching citizenship.

Dave Mckenna said...

Thanks Kris. Rationalising elections is an interesting one. Maybe have one day a year when electons are always held and make it a public holiday? I'd go for that :)


This blog is spot on with regards to compulsory voting. Rather like Kris, I too have been a supporter for compulsory voting.

The clause on abstention is an important one. Whilst we should have the right, we should equally have the right not to vote in terms of being forced to support parties with which we do not agree. Saying that, the logic behind compelling people to participate in the democratic process is sound.

What the blog does not mention is the voting mechanism. There may genuine reasons why people are unable to vote at an election. Britain's system is at best archaic and does not easily allow for access to participate - though wide-spread use postal voting should help resolve this barrier. The marking of ballot paper with a stubby-pencil is an anachronistic in a world of electronic online media. Thus compulsory voting needs be coupled with improved mechanisms of physically voting - that way the public may be more prepared to support such a move.

Philip Whiteman

Ben said...

Hi Dave, great post. I've been musing on this while I walked the dog and I have to say I think the idea of compulsory voting, at least in local elections, is wrong in principle and would be ineffective in practice.

I think it's wrong in principle because it is predicated on a relationship between the citizen and Council that does not exist. The history of local government is of small elites being granted power (and then responsibility) to do things in their community. These things are undoubtedly of public benefit and I'm not attacking local government here. Elections were introduced and continue to be used by the citizenry as a check on the elite, not as a way of conferring legitimacy on them.

We simply don't have the constitutional settlement that we would need to make the argument for compulsory elections.

(I'm aware I'm making some sweeping statements here clearly but bear with me).

I think it would be ineffective in practice because though, clearly, it would drive up participation at the ballot box I can't see that it would in reality make elected officials more responsive to local needs.

If the current funding settlement reveals anything it reveals that Eric Pickles has much more influence on my local authority's services than the Leader of the Council does.

Citizens aren't stupid, councillors aren't stupid

(Again, I'm generalising here)

getting more crosses on the ballot box won't shift the power relationship one iota.

So that's my conclusion: a new constitutional settlement and a new funding settlement and then we can talk about a new electoral settlement.

And that was just after the morning walk...

Dave Mckenna said...

Oooh, good comments.

Philip - yes access to voting is a vital topic - might have to think about whether that might be a post in its own right. I'd have to consult with Toby James at Swansea first - he has written a couple of papers on this recently.

Ben - I actually agree with most of what you say although I suppose I'd ask whether compulsory voting doesn't actually provide a more effective check on the elite in that they would need to consider a wider set of community interests. Even if you reject the legitimacy aspect.

Linked to this, I would argue that, whilst local politicians do regocnise that national elections may have the biggest influence, they are still very sensitive to the local electorate. There has been some debate about this but I think David Beetham summed it up pretty well when he said; '...the fact of the vote casts a long shadow in front of it'

Bigger picture tho - new constitutional settlement? Yes! Absolutely!

Kris W said...

In response to Ben, councillors are not stupid and currently they know they are only trying to reach about a third of the local population as that is all that will vote. As a result the big issues in local government reflect the demographic that vote - fear of crime, bins, street cleaning, roads. Imagine a world where youth services, child protection are just as important!

Toby James said...

On compulsory voting: the research evidence from other countries has shown strongly that it can increase turnout dramatically. But only if sanctions are applied to those who do not vote. For example, some countries impose a fine, but some countries do very little.

By this logic, providing financial incentives, such as £10 off the council tax bill, might work. Positive incentives, rather than negative fines might be politically easier to implement. I wonder what (if any) legislation would be required for this to happen.

It might be worth adding that compulsory voting has tended to be used at the national level, but I think that it has also been used in the Swiss Canton's in the past and it has been effective there too.

Sarah Birch has written an excellent recent book on compulsory voting, which I can recommend (Manchester University Press).


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