Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Turning out the vote

Compulsory voting is the only sure way to raise turnout, argues Gareth Thomas

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Since the general election there has been much justified concern about low voter turnout with many theories being offered to explain the gradual decline in numbers voting, and many suggestions – including financial incentives and the use of the internet – being offered as possible solutions.

There is, however, only one sure way of raising turnout given the substantial drop across the country, which is to make participation in elections compulsory.

More effort clearly needs to be made by all political parties, by politicians themselves and by other political organisations to champion political debate for its own sake, to promote citizenship, to engage with those groups least represented, and to celebrate the opportunity that politics offers to make a difference for the communities from which we all come. Starting a debate going about how we tackle those wider issues should not be used as an excuse to put aside the specific debate that needs to be had about voter turnout in elections.

Surely everybody has a responsibility to vote, to cast their judgment on those who have been elected to office, on the parties they represent, and on their handling of both the important national issues of the day and key local concerns, too.

Some in the Labour Party worry that compulsory voting could mean the possibility of having to choose between a Conservative and Liberal candidate if our party is not fielding a candidate. I wouldn’t dream of asking Labour Party members to choose only between either of the main Opposition parties. Instead the voter would have to attend the polling station, vote for one of the candidates on offer, or register their abstention on the ballot paper.

Compulsory voting is not an unproven, alien concept. It operates most effectively in Australia where turnouts of over 95 percent are regularly achieved, of which just two to three percent are those abstaining, and with just the threat of a 20 dollar fine to encourage adherence to the law. 

There are, of course, those who argue that some appalling breach of civil liberties would be committed by requiring people to, at worst, register their abstention. But compulsory voting is surely just a logical extension of the legal requirement to register to vote. Is being asked to vote once every five years any more an infringement of liberty than having to fill out your census form once every ten years or do two weeks jury service sometime in your professional life? Yes, compulsory voting involves a very small decrease in freedom, but it is much less of a burden than other obligations placed on citizens – the requirement for compulsory school attendance or to pay taxes.

There are, too, those who argue that a reluctant vote is worse than no vote at all and those forced to go to the polls against their will, will be unlikely to cast a well considered vote. There has never been any evidence at all to justify such a view. 

Compulsory voting would have a series of benefits other than just achieving high turnout. It would undoubtedly generate additional interest in politics. Compulsory voting would also begin to change the way politicians and political parties engage with the electorate during a general election campaign. The emphasis now, in the last weeks of a campaign, is on mobilising your supporters to get to the polls. With the knowledge that everybody would be going to the polls, there would be greater incentive to keep championing your ideas, your policies, your record on the doorstep until the polls closed.

I think we have reached the point where a serious debate about the merits of compulsory voting is now urgent. Our forebears fought long and hard for the right to participate in elections. Elections are a test of political opinion like no other, they are the defining assessment of government and of the political leadership of our country. Surely it’s not too much to ask of us that we take 30 seconds out every five years to make our judgment on those who seek to lead us?

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Gareth Thomas MP

is member of parliament for Harrow West

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