Should voting be compulsory?


26 January 2011

Participation in elections is declining in Britain, with lower rates of turnout associated with increasing social disparities in the backgrounds of voters. The gap in voting rates between manual and non-manual workers has doubled in recent years, as has the difference in voting rates between the top and bottom income groups.

These trends, taken together, have led some people to suggest that Britain should follow the example of democracies such as Belgium, Italy and Australia and make voting legally compulsory.

Dr Annabelle Lever is a member of the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester School of Law and an expert on democratic theory. She recently completed the Democracy, Deliberation and Public Service Reform report for a joint ESRC-Public Services Trust project on Citizenship and Society. Her research finds that low turnout appears to threaten the legitimacy of a country’s government and electoral system. As political commentator Ferdinand Mount said of the report of the Power Inquiry, in Britain, "when little more than 20 per cent of the electorate has voted for the winning party, as in the United Kingdom general election of May 2005, legitimacy begins to drain away". He added: "If just over half of us bother to vote at all in national elections and scarcely a third in local elections, the bureaucracy begins to think of elections as a tiresome and increasingly insignificant interruption in its continuous exercise of power. What develops is…'executive democracy' and….more rudely described… 'elective dictatorship'."

Moreover, because lower rates of turnout seem to exacerbate social differences in voting rates, democracies who rely on voluntary voting appear to face a vicious circle in which the least well-off in society are least likely to vote and, therefore, least likely to attract sympathetic attention from politicians eager to get elected or re-elected. Compulsory voting is one of the few means available rapidly to turn around both low and unequal rates of voting.

The trouble, however, is that legal requirements to vote do not increase people’s affection for their political parties, or trust in their political system. So forcing people to participate in elections does not increase political legitimacy. Nor is it clear that non-voting is always morally wrong.

What voters can do with their votes depends, importantly, on how other voters vote, on the political parties and candidates on offer, and on the domestic and international challenges facing their country. People do not have to be selfish, ignorant or misguided to doubt that voting will make much difference to their lives, or to the lives of other people. Hence, it is unlikely that voters have a moral duty to vote at all elections, and the complexity and uncertainty of elections mean that some voters may feel morally obliged to abstain.

Democratic government is justified because people are entitled to participate in the decisions that shape their lives, and the lives of those for whom they are responsible. But this does not mean that they are morally required to vote, or that voting must make a great difference to their lives. So, compulsory voting provides no easy solution to political alienation and apathy, and no substitute for a long hard look at the reasons why so many potential voters believe that there is no point in voting.

From the ESRC magazine Britain in 2011