Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Compulsory voting

Taking part in elections is not simply a right. It is a duty, and a duty that no citizen should be excused from exercising.
So spoil your ballot paper or write ‘none of the above’, because at least that shows an active engagement and a willingness to participate, and it sends a clear message.

Simply staying at home, or throwing the postal vote in the bin, or failing to register on the electoral register, isn’t expressing your voice. It is abdicating your responsibility, failing in a democratic duty, and potentially gifting power to a political elite that can claim a mandate from the electorate whilst being simultaneously disconnected from them.

Why does this matter at all? Because low levels of political participation through the ballot box risks letting us (politicians) get away with anything we want.
Many people think that our obsession with low turnout at elections is a new phenomenon, but that is far from the truth. In the 1930s, turnouts of 30 percent to 40 percent in parliamentary by-elections resulted in a 10-minute rule bill for compulsory voting in 1934 and a private member’s bill in 1937. Even earlier than this, the first private member’s bill was presented in 1921, and there have been a series of bills since, the latest being in 2001.

None has been successful, but to paraphrase Kant: you cannot stop an idea whose time has come.
Much of the discussion on compulsory voting has focused on general elections, as the turnout has plummeted from 77.7 percent (1992) to 71.4 percent (1997) to 59.4 percent (2001). But even more worrying are local elections, with turnouts as low as ten percent – and it can be argued that this is where compulsory voting would have even greater effect. Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece are amongst the many countries where compulsory voting is successful, with turnouts as high as 95 percent and spoilt papers less than 8 percent of the vote cast. They have not had to march people by gunpoint to the polls in Sydney or Athens. People just get on with it.

The Electoral Commission has reported back on pilot studies on new ways to increase voter participation, and all-postal ballots in particular have merit in boosting turnout. I hope that Wales will be accepted as one of three regions for all-postal ballots in the European and Council elections next year.

However, while we seek technocratic solutions, all of which have some worth, the debate on compulsory voting has gone off the agenda. If we believe in full democratic participation, and believe that politicians should be fully held to account, let us start the debate again.

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Huw Irranca-Davies MP

Huw Irranca-Davies is MP for Ogmore

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