Compulsory voting won't fix young people's disenchantment with mainstream politics

24 April 2014

The introduction of compulsory first-time voting will not engage today's teenagers in politics or create good voting habits in future, suggests research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Only 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2010 General Election. That young people seem to be increasingly reluctant to vote is a major concern to politicians, prompting proposals such as compulsory first time voting as well as the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's recent call for lowering the voting age to 16.

But, argues Nottingham Trent University researcher Professor Matt Henn: "There's no quick fix for young people's current disaffection with politics. If politicians are serious about making young people part of our democracy, then they must introduce a raft of well thought-through programmes and systems that make young people feel that participation is meaningful and worthwhile."

Compulsory first time voting, if introduced, could actually prove counter-productive, Professor Henn insists. Aversion to politicians is high according to a survey of 1,025 young adults aged 18 that he and co-researcher Nick Foard conducted a year on from the 2010 UK General Election. The findings have just been released.

The overwhelming majority (81 per cent) held a negative view of politicians and only 8 per cent admitted any trust in political parties. More than half (57 per cent) claimed that elections don't really change anything.

"Forcing young people to vote when they are so deeply sceptical of politicians could simply reinforce their negativity and resentment," says Professor Henn, who is based in Nottingham Trent University's School of Social Sciences. "Compulsory first-time voting would also reinforce the negative stereotype of young people as being 'different' from the rest of the adult population - apathetic, politically irresponsible and basically not good citizens, which is unlikely to help them feel truly connected to the democratic process."

In the survey, 58 per cent of 18 year olds who said they were very unlikely to vote at the next election claimed that compulsory voting would make either no difference to this decision (38 per cent), or make them even less likely to vote (20 per cent). "From this we can infer that the introduction of compulsory voting would merely serve to reinforce existing feelings of resentment - perhaps even make young people more susceptible to parties with anti-democratic tendencies - especially those of the far-right," Professor Henn warns.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the survey also reveals that young people are actually more open-minded about politics (as opposed to politicians) than many people might think. Nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of young people claim at least some interest in politics. Furthermore, young people appear to maintain some faith in electoral politics: more than half (57 per cent) state that they are committed to the principle of voting and 64 per cent said that they were considering voting at the next election.

Professor Henn points out that converting this democratic commitment into democratic participation is the challenge and lowering the voting age to 16 could – as part of a wider raft of measures – help convince teenagers that they are valued by the political class, rather than maligned and excluded.

"At present it's a vicious circle," co-researcher Nick Foard explains. "Politicians tend to pursue policies that favour older and more voting-inclined groups. If young people don't vote they tend to be ignored by politicians. When they are ignored by politicians, young people don't feel motivated to vote."

To break this impasse, researchers suggest a programme of measures aimed at younger voters including an extended and enriched citizenship curriculum in schools; lowering the voting age to 16; voter registration up to and including voting day itself; and strong educational campaigns aimed at encouraging 16 year olds to see the value of registering to vote.

"The key question is how do we get more young people thinking about politics in such a way that they actually want to go and vote?" Professor Henn says. "Lowering the voting age or compulsory voting will not in themselves achieve this. Rather, extending the vote to 16 year olds should be tied in with measures to improve young people's political literacy and help make the idea of democratic participation second nature. Furthermore, practical measures such as keeping schools open on polling day so that young people can easily cast their vote while at school and allowing Election Day registration in schools might also help to boost young people's turnout at elections."

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Young people and politics in Britain: How do young people participate in politics and what can be done to strengthen their political connection' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Professor Matt Henn, Chair in Social Research, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University and Dr Nick Foard, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University
  2. Methodology: Researchers carried out a national representative survey of 1,025 18 year olds living in England, Scotland and Wales. This was conducted in 2011, and included those who voted at the 2010 General Election and those who did not. This was followed by 14 focus groups with 86 young people who opted not to vote at the 2010 General Election. See ESRC End of Award Report RES-000-22-4450
  3. Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission volume has been published and is available online. It is a part of a series of short policy papers aimed at influencing government and shadow minister.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. The research was graded as very good.