It's Time We Talked About Compulsory Voting In Britain

Two and half thousand years ago the satirist Aristophanes wrote Acharnians, his comedy about one man’s determination, in the madness of war, to bring about his own private peace against the wishes of the political elite. It is not so much an anti-war play as one about citizenship. Its opening scene contains one of the most striking examples of Athens’ political culture, a demonstration of the Solonic ideal of civic participation, as slaves with paint-stained ropes herd citizens onto the pnyx to vote. Those whose clothes were besmirched with red paint were fined should voting numbers not reach a necessary quorum.

In the West we often see Classical Greece as our reference point for modern-day democracy: when he called the referendum on the bail-out deal, Alexis Tsipras invoked Greece’s ancient heritage; Plato and Aristotle form the basis for much of our political philosophy. But we speak of human rights, civil rights, political rights (concepts not totally alien to Athenians): our doxa (what seems) is somewhat different.

We speak of a tradition dating back thousands of years, obscuring that this is not a seamless one and our democracy is actually very new: the full franchise, only achieved when women got the vote on equal terms with men, is less than a hundred years old; if you accept the premise that the political chaos of the 1920s and 1930s prevented the development of a firm political culture, modern democracy in this country only emerged in 1945. We are similar but different at the same time.

Put it this way, how would you feel if at the next election there was a knock on your door and you opened it to see an intimidating government heavy telling you it was time for you to go and vote?

Currently twenty two countries metaphorically do that, although only ten enforce it. Australia, whose law dates back to 1924, has the longest uninterrupted tradition of compulsory voting but the idea in enlightened societies is more long-standing whether it be post-Revolutionary France or the Polish szlachta. After Barack Obama mused about its possibility, people are debating compulsory voting in the United States where turnout in the last presidential election was 55%.

This is a debate that is especially worth having in Britain

Last week a project was launched by the Electoral Reform Society for Citizens’ Assemblies to debate Britain’s democratic future. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn, non-voters and voter participation have become a current topic. It is perhaps for the wrong reasons but reflects a lurking concern about a drop in turnout at general elections (and even worse participation at local and European elections).

Those who are sceptical about the self-selecting nature of Corbyn’s win should perhaps consider an argument that a national democratic process, that itself has become self-selecting, is not actually democratic. If political equality is accepted, then should not that equality have to exist in practice? It is a debate that is especially worth having in Britain, where lower turnout (within the Western European average) and a first-past-the-post system means elections can now be won with the “micro-targeting” of voters in key constituencies. The political impact is obvious: politicians invest in demographics more disposed to vote with policy implications for those not. Why else is George Osborne cutting tax credits while protecting pensioner benefits?

This is not the fault of politicians whose first job is to get elected. Still less pensioners who act with as much self-interest as any other voter. And actually emotionally I struggle to sympathise with those who are disengaged. Yet their voices are not being heard. Few people will speak for them if they will not speak for themselves.

does not real illegitimacy develop when there are some votes whom nobody even bothers to seek?

An argument against is that compulsion leads to less committed voters deciding on extreme or joke candidates, but a compulsion to vote is not the same as compulsion to elect: the secret ballot means it is impossible to force a positive decision. A corollary could be that the state might make it possible for voters to record a “scratch” vote; but it must be that they make it easier for citizens to vote, with a legal presumption of political registration. If anything, our culture is moving further away from this. Charges of democratic illegitimacy are usually self-serving. Those who complain about this government’s mandate are more often than not its opponents. They also miss the point: does not real illegitimacy develop when there are some votes which nobody even bothers to seek?

The ideals against idiotism incline me towards. Yet despite a poll taken before the general election showing majority support for compulsory voting I am sceptical it will ever happen in Britain: there is something subversive in the national character which makes us suspicious, sullenly rebellious, of coercive authority. We elect politicians then deride them; we certainly would not stand when one entered a room.

We think of our vote as our right. Those who argue that we should vote because our predecessors died to get the vote disregard that they died for a right and no right has to be exercised. After all, we have the right to free speech but rarely use it to its fullest capacity. But what if the doxa were to change? What if we were to call it obligatory voting or even mandatory voting? What if our right to vote became our duty to vote? It is not totally unfeasible: jury service is a mandatory duty, and it cannot be asking too much to require an individual to attend a polling booth once every five years for their good and the common good.

There may well be a debate soon about mandatory voting. Who knows where it will lead? But before we can know that, clearly we have to decide the kind of polity we live in.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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