Why Vote? It only encourages them!
In 1950, 83.9% of the British public did it. In 1951, 82.6% of the public did it again. In 2001, just 59.4% of us did it, but, in 2010, 65.1% decided it was worthy of our time. No, unfortunately, this is not another article about ‘Twerking’. ‘It’, is for most people, the closest we will ever get to active participation in the running of our country – voting in a General Election. Australia has just gone to the polls, and, though we can learn nothing from their rugby or cricket teams (as a Brit referencing Australia in the summer of 2013, it now appears that a sports dig is obligatory) we can almost certainly learn from their voting legislation.
The contemporary disenchantment with British politics will not be alleviated by one measure alone. However, steps can be taken to encourage engagement with key issues. As the country has felt the full effects of austerity, many more people have taken issue with one or another of the government’s measures. We have seen students protesting, teachers going on strike and even Nigel Farage being refused a taxi in Edinburgh. These are all examples of direct action. However, they all resulted in little or no change. Student fees rise, Michael Gove’s reforms continue and, unfortunately, Nigel Farage still made it home. But compulsory attendance at the polling stations would give rise to a more representative Government, accountable to a greater number of people. Turnout in Australia is somewhere near the 95% mark, inarguably far more democratic than, say, the 2001 UK Election where more people in the country didn’t vote at all than voted for Labour in their landslide victory. An issue in part with the ‘first past the post’ voting system, but, when it came to a vote to change the system to a fairer and more democratic way of doing things in May 2011, the turnout was just 42%.
And what do we lose by implementing it? Compulsory voting isn’t just about the state forcing citizens to vote. It’s also about ensuring the state facilitates voting at every opportunity by putting the onus on the state to provide adequate voting facilities for every citizen. It would force – as in Australia – the postal vote system to be simplified. The excuse of “I didn’t have time to vote” would be eradicated – as in Australia – by holding the elections at the weekend. As in Australia, registration on the electoral roll would have to be simplified. Every effort would have to be made by an independent electoral commission to ensure that there were ballot boxes in hospitals and care homes – as in…well, you get the idea. It isn’t all about moving the mountains to Mohammed, the British public would still have to take 15 or 20 minutes out of their day to vote, but, as the well worn cliché goes, we Brits love a good queue.
The nay-sayers exist even in Australia. There is evidence that those appearing at the top of the list alphabetically gain 5% more of the vote – due in part to the sheer laziness of the voter. This, however, would surely be offset by the number of people in Britain who every election, very humorously I must add, vote for the Monster Raving Looney Party. There are also those who claim that it is as much their right to not vote, as it is to vote and, without claiming to know the ins and outs of each suffragette’s mind, I can only imagine how that argument would fly with Emily Pankhurst. Regardless, even with compulsory voting, there would be nothing to stop a disenchanted voter from spoiling their ballot. And for the pedants amongst the compulsory-voting critics, a “none of the above” box could be included on every ballot paper.
Compulsory attendance at the polling station is no different from jury service, and, as a nation, we don’t see that as anything other than a duty. Children are taught citizenship, and compulsory voting would come hand in hand with a greater emphasis on educating children about the political process. If every citizen is forced to make a trip to the polling station every 4 or 5 years, it may just encourage people to educate themselves about the different parties – it may even challenge people to take on and vote about the issues that affect them on a day to day basis. It could even have an effect on the political parties themselves, since after all, those who don’t vote at the moment often come from the lowest socio-economic bands. Voting has, since the beginning of British democracy, been the bastion of the upper classes and enfranchisement has trickled slowly down the social classes ever since. If turnout became 95%, it’s not unfeasible to suggest that it could force the political parties to broaden their appeal to the whole of society and, consequently, our disenchantment would end.