Political disengagement and socioeconomic inequality: the case for compulsory voting

With the 2015 General Election approaching, the problem of rising political disengagement and low voter turnout has been discussed extensively, particularly with respect to young voters. Such trends urge us to consider the factors that drive political disengagement and what, on a public policy level, can be done to address these issues. Compulsory voting could have many potential benefits, most notably raising turnout levels, and, compensating for the social, political and economic obstacles which may prevent people from voting.

High levels of popular engagement with national elections are desirable in representative democracies as they tend to produce governments and policies which are more representative of the electorate, and subsequently, are viewed as more legitimate. Hence, voter turnout levels are important in assessing the health of a democracy. Worldwide, electoral turnout has been on a steady decline. Average voter turnout has dropped from 73% in the mid-1980s to less than 65% by the early 2000s.[1] In the UK, the sharpest decline in turnout has been amongst young voters aged 18 – 24, at an average of 43.5% between the 2001 and 2010 General Elections.[2]

To increase turnout, some countries have adopted compulsory voting, where citizens are legally obliged to vote in government elections or may face punitive measures such as fines or community service. Amongst these countries are Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg and Brazil. Compulsory voting is extremely effective at increasing turnout, with Australia’s amongst the highest globally, at an average of 94% between 1998 and 2010.[3]

Opponents of compulsory voting usually cite the violation of liberty and freedom of choice as the principal objection. That is, even if we accept that voting is a public good and that, as citizens, we have a civic duty to vote, we cannot justifiably violate one’s political freedom and individual liberty by forcing citizens to vote.

However, on closer analysis of the factors driving political disengagement, it becomes apparent that the reasons for which citizens choose not to vote are grounded in socioeconomic inequality. Thus, the notion of having absolute freedom of choice in choosing whether to vote is misleading.

Less privileged citizens are disproportionately more likely to abstain from voting than their more privileged counterparts.[4] In 2005, the UK Electoral Commission published a report which found that in the UK, those who experience social deprivation (as driven by low income, poverty, education and other factors) also tend to be the most politically excluded within society. This is especially the case with young people, and political disengagement is likely to be cemented during these ‘formative’ years. [5]

Similarly, Belgian political scientists, Hooghe and Pelleriaux, conducted a simulation which found that formal educational attainment level was strongly linked to inclination to vote in national elections. In the simulation, respondents were asked “would you still go to vote if voting was no longer compulsory?” in a survey. 48.6% of respondents who had attained only elementary education indicated that they would never vote again, compared to just 9.8% of respondents with higher education.[6] Further, educational inequalities are strongly linked with other socioeconomic inequalities.

The fact that socioeconomically disadvantaged citizens are far more likely to abstain from voting reveals that they systematically encounter obstacles which prevent them from participating in political life. In other words, socioeconomic deprivation acts as a barrier to political engagement. Thus, whilst having an institutionalised, legal right to vote a necessary condition of suffrage, it is not sufficient. Equally as important is having the effective means to engage in political life; that is the real ‘freedom of choice’.

Introducing a system of compulsory voting is therefore a step towards greater political equality. In this case, the aggregate social gains outweigh the costs of imposing on individual autonomy. Especially with respect to civic duties, we can think of several other examples where individual liberty is justifiably curtailed for the collective good, like taxation, giving evidence in court or jury duty.

It is also worth noting that any justifiable vision of compulsory voting should include a channel in which conscientious abstainers– those who wish to be excused from voting for politically principled reasons – could legitimately seek exemption from voting, and; ballot papers should have a clear ‘none of the above’ option.

Growing political disenfranchisement in the UK is a problem of socioeconomic inequality. A system of compulsory voting gives all citizens an opportunity to engage, however superficially, in political life. It should therefore not be viewed as a threat to individual liberty, but rather an opportunity to enfranchise citizens with an equal and effective means to exercise political rights.

Originally published for the 99% Campaign Blog

References

Engelen, B. (2007). Why compulsory voting can enhance democracy. Acta politica42(1), 23-39.

Dar, A. (2013). Elections: Turnout. Social and General Statistics (SN/SG/1467). United Kingdom. House of Commons Library. Available online at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN01467.pdf

Hill, L. (2002). Compulsory voting: Residual problems and potential solutions.Australian Journal of Political Science37(3), 437-455.

Hill, L. (2006). Low Voter Turnout in the United States Is Compulsory Voting a Viable Solution?. Journal of Theoretical Politics18(2), 207-232.

Hooghe, M., & Pelleriaux, K. (1998). Compulsory voting in Belgium: An application of the Lijphart thesis. Electoral studies17(4), 419-424.

IDEA (2002) ‘Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report’, available online at: http://www.idea.int/publications/vt/upload/VT_screenopt_2002.pdf.

IDEA (2004) ‘Voter Turnout data for Australia, available online at: http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=15

Mackerras, M., & McAllister, I. (1999). Compulsory voting, party stability and electoral advantage in Australia. Electoral Studies18(2), 217-233.

The Electoral Commission,. Social Exclusion And Political Engagement. London: N.p., 2005. Available online at:  http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/63835/Social-exclusion-and-political-engagement.pdf

[1] IDEA (2002) ‘Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report’ p.76

[2] Dar, A. (2013). Elections: Turnout). Social and General Statistics (SN/SG/1467). United Kingdom. House of Commons Library.

[3] IDEA (2004) ‘Voter Turnout data for Australia

[4] Engelen, B. (2007). Why compulsory voting can enhance democracy. Acta politica, 42(1), 23-39.

[5] The Electoral Commission,. Social Exclusion And Political Engagement. London: N.p., 2005.

[6] Hooghe, M., & Pelleriaux, K. (1998). Compulsory voting in Belgium: An application of the Lijphart thesis. Electoral studies, 17(4), 419-424.

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