Compulsory Voting in the UK: The Conservative Case Against | Daniel Hawker
To cast your vote is an inherent part of the British political system, as well as a right that many nowadays take for granted – in doing so, they forgetting that at multiple points in the history of the free democratic world, many groups were barred from holding this right, including women, former slaves in the US and those not wealthy enough to own land.
But, as civilisation has evolved, so have the political rights of these groups, including the right to vote: for women (over thirty) and all men (including poor ones) in the UK, this came in the form of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 and for African-Americans (men at least), the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Now, in modern times, every election across the democratic world is rife with proud voters, who feel it is their patriotic duty to cast their vote, in stark contrast with those who’d rather stay at home and binge their favourite programme on Netflix or Hulu – and whilst the reasons people often cite for not voting are extremely interesting and complex in themselves, they are not the main focus of this article. What is is whether or not compulsory voting should be introduced into the UK, the reasons often cited in favour and what I think about each of them.
Most democracies today consider it to be the right of the people to choose whether or not to contribute to picking the next government, it’s their small role in their country’s governance. However, a small number of nations (twenty seven) believe it to be every citizen’s civic duty to vote (essentially another thing that comes with citizenship, like jury duty or paying taxes) with these countries regulating compulsory voting in their national constitutions and electoral laws, even imposing punishments for non-voters (ranging from fines to time in prison).
The concept of compulsory voting has been around in its current form for a longer time than you might think, first being introduced in Belgium in 1893, with Argentina and Australia following in their footsteps, adopting the practice in 1914 and 1924 respectively (the latter following a fall in turnout in the 1922 federal election).
Those who advocate for the UK to adopt this system most often reference how surely any government action made or policy passed is made infinitely more legitimate if higher proportions of the population vote in said government to power – candidates who win seats in Parliament really do win a majority of the people’s votes. Generally, countries with compulsory voting are also seen to have a more politically-aware population, and therefore electorate – the voters take more time to understand party policy and proposals should they gain power.
But I disagree – by having compulsory registration and voting, you reduce the legitimacy of elected representatives – majorities in Australian and Belgian elections include the votes of many uninterested or ill-informed voters who are simply at the polling station because of a legal obligation. There is also no evidence to suggest countries with compulsory voting like Australia have a more politically-educated population that countries like New Zealand, the UK and the US (who don’t have compulsory voting).
With the vast majority of these twenty-seven countries claiming to be democracies (with dictatorships like North Korea and Egypt also appearing), it could surely be argued that by having compulsory voting in place, you ensure democracy is properly carried out. Generally translated to ‘rule by the people’, this presumably refers to all eligible voters (which when originally thought up by Cleisthenes in Ancient Athens, didn’t include women and slaves). By taking the root word on which, these nations and this idea is founded on, surely you would logically come to the conclusion that it is every citizen’s right AND duty to elect their representatives, for elections are supposed to reflect the will of the entire population. In doing so, voting helps to instil in people a sense of national pride and identity which has been lost and warped in so many countries, not least of which our home nation. But if we’re truly to understand the movements like the Suffragettes, then we’d be foolish to force them into voting; what they campaigned for was the right to vote and therefore also the choice not to. Addressing the issue of revamping national pride, if anything, compulsory voting would simply further divide voters along lines of either supporting or opposing the act of being forced to vote, instead of the real political issues.
Proper representation for all citizens is also a strong incentive to support compulsory voting we are told, in order to battle the underrepresentation in politics felt by certain communities like the ill and the poor. Democracy is not properly upheld if for instance, only forty percent of the population votes, which means only roughly twenty percent, or one fifth of the country’s population voted for the government – those who will design and implement laws and policies that affect many people, not just those who voted for them – non-voters as well. The clear alternative to this view is that politicians and political parties must adapt and evolve to suit the needs and demands of a shifting electorate in order to incentivise more of the population to vote; compulsory voting isn’t the best option for this problem. As with so many issues, the Left view government intervention and action as the solution, whereas us on the Right see personal choice as the clear and correct alternative.
The primary point we often hear repeated over and over in this debate is to do with decreasing voter turnout, and how the introduction of compulsory voting would battle that in the UK (and with the increasing displeasure and distrust people have for politicians across much of the Western world, it’s really no wonder). In the UK, it’s only in the last twenty years that voter turnout has dropped below seventy percent (dropping to a dismal fifty-nine-point four percent in 2001). – apathy for the political system, especially amongst young people is often credited in this decrease. It is therefore unsurprising that the last few years has seen a growing call within the UK to make compulsory voting the law of the land; a Committee in 2014 discussed whether the introduction of compulsory voting would be an effective way to increase voter turnout engagement but no consensus was reached. Similar data concerning low turnout can be seen across Europe, looking at past election data – as a continent, we’ve seen a far greater fall in turnout compared to others. Post-Communist countries saw in particular a dreadful decrease; of the twenty-two, an increase in voter turnout can be seen in only two, Belarus and Russia, the former being considered Europe’s last true dictatorship and both being ruled by men (Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin) who are routinely condemned for silencing political opponents and changing laws to cling onto their power.
Considering Belarus and Russia takes me on to my most essential and crucial point of this article – introduce compulsory voting to the UK, and it’s the first step on a slippery slope towards totalitarianism and an immensely powerful state. We’ve seen across the world throughout the latter half of the 20th Century that the introduction of compulsory voting in many African nations is often followed by suppression of press freedom, human rights and a fair and impartial justice system. Currently, it may seem that the UK, as the great Western power that it is, could never fall to that level of government control and I’m not saying it would – I’m simply saying it sets a dangerous precedent concerning future government action. With increasing authoritarian regimes taking control in countries like Brazil and Turkey, the UK must hold strong and remain a beacon of strength and freedom – the USA is becomingly increasingly lost in radical leftism and the spread of socialism.
Besides the fact that governments force their citizens to vote whether they want to or not, the primary reason most conservatives have for not supporting the implementation of compulsory voting in the UK is that it means more people from lower socioeconomic groups vote, and they tend to favour leftist parties and their policies – indeed, a Swiss study found that compulsory voting increases electoral support for leftist policy positions in referendums by up to twenty percentage points. Research also found that the Australian Labour Party have both increased vote and seat shares thanks to compulsory voting, which leads to greater government spending at the national level.
This question had me thinking back to why I decided that I’m a conservative, what beliefs and values I hold to be true and dear and what role I believe government should play in our society. The power and freedom of the individual is the pinnacle of conservatism – to choose which path you will take in life, what you will support and believe and what you’ll die for. Supporting the government forcing citizens to vote isn’t power to the individual – the exact opposite. It’s supporting exactly what I oppose – an overarching government that seeks greater control over the population and their actions and choices.
There are some who believe they must vote and are proud and excited to do so every five years, and there are those who view not voting as a form of rebellion against what they view as a broken system. The fact that in the UK, you can choice whether or not to vote (and also aren’t intimidated into voting for one party over another) is a freedom and right we must protect at all costs. Compulsory voting so obviously violates our personal liberties and freedoms that are protected by government, not to be manipulated and used for their electoral benefit.
Voter turnout may increase and political policies may be read more closely, but that isn’t in my view, worth compromising an inherent freedom of this great country. The Left support it so they can control and the Right oppose it so they can maintain freedom.