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The case for compulsory voting

Electoral participation has become increasingly skewed by class and age inequality. Some groups are much more influential at the ballot box than others. Sarah Birch argues the case for making turnout compulsory, which she asserts would lead to improvements in political, social and procedural fairness
t is a sure bet that in the run-up to this years European Parliamentary elections in June even the most optimistic will be predicting dismal turnout. At the last such elections in 2004 a mere 39 per cent of the UK electorate managed to complete a ballot paper, and in 1999 the figure was only 24 per cent. Yet in the midst of severe economic crisis, can we really afford to worry about something as seemingly unimportant as electoral participation?

I argue that in fact there is an even greater need for concern, as political engagement is intimately if not obviously linked to reactions to and perceptions of economic conditions. There are two main reasons for this: first, governments need to have democratic legitimacy to pull countries through difficult times. The current crisis of public disaffection is only likely to worsen with the economic downturn. Though one might expect turnout in the public policy research March-May 2009


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Governments need to have democratic legitimacy to pull countries through difficult times

next General Election to rise (given the revival of the Conservative Party and heightened political competition) disaffection could still represent a countervailing effect that depresses turnout, especially among poorer sections of the population. Unless public engagement with the democratic process improves, our leaders may well find themselves elected by precariously small proportions of the eligible population, which will cast doubt on the popular mandate behind their policy initiatives. Second, economic stress exacerbates perceptions of social inequality. If the have-nots increasingly shun electoral means of addressing their concerns, they may resort to more disruptive forms of political action. Social unrest manifests itself as a quintessentially economic problem, but it is also closely linked to constitutional and political structures, as these structures define the options citizens have at their disposal for voicing dissent. Therefore the need to keep track of constitutional reform and the electoral modernisation agenda has arguably never been more urgent to bolster both the legitimacy of elected leaders and of the social settlement that results from government policy. Increasing the electoral participation rates of deprived and marginalised social groups is a key means of incentivising political par-

ties to pay attention to their needs, and thereby of heading off destabilising forms of social unrest.

The gap in voter turnout in Britain

The difference in turnout between social groups has become starker, notably as measured by age and socio-economic status. By the time of the 2005 General Election, turnout in the 18 to 25 age group had fallen to just 37 per cent, whereas the proportion of over-65s voting was 75 per cent a yawning gap of 38 per cent. The gap in turnout between socio-economic groups is less pronounced, but still alarmingly large: depending on the measure of socio-economic status employed, it ranges from 13 to 16 per cent between those at the lowest and those at the highest rungs of the ladder (Keaney and Rogers 2006). These figures suggest that there is a serious inclusivity problem associated with electoral politics. In response the Government has, in recent years, experimented with such innovations as voting by text message or by digital television, in addition to more prosaic initiatives such as encouraging postal voting. Yet none of these measures has been particularly successful in raising turnout, and some such as the extension of postal voting have led to problems with security (Wilks-Heeg 2008). There has, however, been no experimentation with the most obvious solution: making turnout compulsory.1 Compulsory turnout is an institution that many other countries have adopted. Close to 30 states legally oblige their citizens to go to the polls: this number includes approximately a quarter of all democracies. About half of the countries that currently employ compulsory turnout have adopted this requirement since 1945. In the states that employ it, mandatory attendance at the polls has been found to increase turnout by between 6 and 20 per cent, depending on the study (see Birch 2009). Thus it is a

device that is a proven means of bolstering electoral participation. In Britain, interest in compulsory turnout waxed and waned during the twentieth century, but the startling General Election of 2001, which saw a mere 59.2 per cent of eligible electors attend the polls, ushered in a new phase of interest in the institution. When turnout failed to improve dramatically at the 2005 election, support for exploring the idea of making turnout mandatory was publicly voiced by several members of the Labour government, including Geoff Hoon and Peter Hain. There followed a number of studies of the topic (for example, Electoral Commission 2006, Keaney and Rogers 2006, Ballinger 2006). In early 2008, plans for launching a public debate on compulsory turnout were mooted in connection with the Constitutional Renewal Bill (Wintour 2008), and in March 2009, the Ministry of Justice published a Green Paper, Rights and Responsibilities: Developing Our Constitutional Framework, in which it set out proposals for making voting a statutory civic duty, though without sanctions for non-compliance (Ministry of Justice 2009). These proposals are a step in the right direction, but do not go far enough, as mandatory participation requires a reliable enforcement mechanism for it to play anything more than a symbolic role. Making electoral participation truly mandatory would not only achieve electoral inclusion in the numeric sense: it would also make elections fairer.

Electoral participation and three varieties of fairness

Introduction of compulsory turnout would lead to improvements in political fairness, social fairness and procedural fairness.

Political fairness The link between political fairness and full electoral participation is perhaps the most

1 The term compulsory voting is usually used to designate this institution, but is something of a misnomer as voting itself can never be made compulsory due to the constraints of the secret ballot. The term compulsory turnout, coined by Keaney and Rogers (2006), is more accurate and is used here.


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intuitively obvious. In a democracy, political fairness is understood largely in terms of political equality, for it is on the principle of equal voice that our entire democratic system rests. Yet current electoral events fail to grant everyone equal voice, because they fail to record all voices. And without a record of everyones view, it is not possible to formulate a collective view that reflects the perspectives of all citizens. An election can be thought of as a political census in which near universal participation is required to generate political decisions that are an accurate reflection of what the population actually wants. When less than two-thirds of the electorate goes to the polls, the government that results from this election typically has the expressed support of well under a third of those eligible to vote. Democratic legitimacy concerns may not weigh heavily with the ordinary voter, but they certainly do trouble the collective minds of governments, and it is no wonder that falling turnout should have generated hand-wringing among the political elite. Compulsory turnout would ensure that virtually all voices are taken into account, and that the outputs of the electoral process thus have full democratic legitimacy.

Social fairness One of the direct substantive results of incomplete turnout is social injustice. There is unequal turnout in Britain and turnout inequality has grown considerably since the 1960s (Keaney and Rogers 2006). Comparative data tells us that higher rates of electoral participation are associated with greater wealth distribution (Hicks and Swank 1992, Lijphart 1997, Mueller and Stratmann 2003). Finally, there is evidence to suggest that states with compulsory turnout have lower levels of income inequality than those where voting is voluntary (Chong and Olivera 2005). In Europe and Latin America, compulsory turnout is associated with a 5.52 per cent relative reduction in the Gini Index (Birch 2009). In short, where voting is voluntary, the views that contribute to policymaking are skewed public policy research March-May 2009

towards the rich, and the result is a widening of the wealth gap. Why do the poor not come together to exercise their electoral muscle? The fact is that the economically deprived face a severe coordination problem in the political sphere. Often poor also in the resources most useful in politics time, money, connections, sophisticated communication skills they have only their vote. At the same time, they have little reason to use their vote if others in their position do not do so, and little means of coordinating with those others to ensure that they collectively act to represent their interests. Political parties might in theory serve this coordination role, but it is not clear that in the UK today there is any political party that genuinely represents the interests of the poor. Indeed, parties lack incentive to tune into the interests of non-voters, especially when those with the most intractable problems make up a disproportionate number of this group. For all its faults, the British political system is relatively good at keeping political parties more or less responsive to the electorate most of the time. It is not so good at keeping parties responsive to the non-electorate, for there is no mechanism in our current set-up to encourage such responsiveness. This generates a cycle of neglect by politicians, breeding electoral alienation, which in turn provides an excuse for further neglect. In more traditional societies, the bonds present in smaller, cohesive social networks often provide the glue necessary to mobilise deprived groups to act in their collective self-interest. But in modern societies, this glue is significantly less powerful, as people lead far more atomised existences. The obvious solution is to substitute institutional adhesive devices for the social counterparts that are no longer functioning. In other words, it may well be that the only way to break the cycle of disaffection, disengagement and under-representation is to make electoral participation mandatory, and thereby provide an incentive for political parties to cater to the needs of the entire population. 23

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One of the beauties of this solution is that it affects all political parties equally. Though compulsory turnout has been touted most frequently by voices in the Labour party, there is little reason to believe that Labour would benefit significantly from an increase in electoral participation (Bernhagen and Marsh 2007, Fisher 2007). Comparative data also suggests that there is no particular partisan advantage associated with making electoral participation mandatory; nor does this institution tend to favour minor extremist parties, as is sometimes alleged (Birch 2009). This argument is relevant to the way in which social justice issues are framed in the UK. Fiscal and social policy are the two devices most commonly deployed in the aim of achieving social justice; constitutional policy is rarely looked to as a means to this end. The evidence presented here suggests that democratic and specifically electoral arrangements should be seen as a third pillar of social justice, alongside their fiscal and social counterparts.

Challenging the case against compulsory turnout

Not only are there strong reasons for introducing compulsory turnout but it is also clear that many of the objections raised about this policy change are found wanting on closer inspection. Below I discuss the normative and then the practical objections. 24

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Procedural fairness A somewhat different but nevertheless relevant aspect of fairness is what might be termed procedural fairness: the extent to which the burden of democracy is borne equally by all. Given that we all are meant to benefit equally from democratic institutions, it stands to reason that we should all have to contribute equally to their supply and maintenance. Requiring everyone to vote effectively distributes the cost of democracy equally. This is an argument that is useful in justifying the perceived imposition of a turnout requirement.

Normative objections One of the most common objections to compulsory turnout is that the right to vote implies the right not to vote. This argument has been convincingly refuted on logical grounds by legal scholar Heather Lardy (2004). Not all positive rights imply negative rights; we have a right to educate our children, but this does not mean that we have a right not to educate our children. We are required by the state to do many other things as well: to pay taxes, and to serve on juries, and to have our names included on the electoral roll. It is not clear that any abstract principle can help us to determine what forms of state compulsion are acceptable and what things we should have a right not to do. This is not so much a matter of principle or logic as one of social consensus. A second common objection is that compulsory turnout laws may merely mask popular disaffection with politics rather than addressing it, and that mandatory participation may even remove a useful measure of the level of disaffection in society: that it makes little sense to inflate turnout figures artificially while leaving the underlying problems unsolved. By way of counter-argument, first, there is no reason why compulsory turnout need be seen as a substitute for remedying popular disaffection. Full participation may go some way towards addressing some of the concerns of the alienated by providing politicians with greater incentive to engage with those concerns, but mandatory turnout should not be viewed primarily as a substitute for the reinvigoration of politics. Second, we have no need to rely on turnout figures as a means of gauging public sentiment, given the many other means of monitoring and measuring feelings of alienation, from surveys and focus groups to protests and demonstrations, not to mention spoilt ballots (Birch 2009). Moreover, turnout is too important normatively for it to be used as a mere measurement tool, even if we did need it for this purpose. A final oft-voiced argument is that compulsory turnout will have a detrimental impact on the quality of votes. It may be that those who neglect to vote voluntarily

simply do not have informed views about issues of public policy and do not therefore have sufficient information or inclination to make meaningful electoral choices. There is a perceived danger that such people might cast arbitrary votes, or worse still, votes for extremist parties. The empirical evidence partially confirms the first hypothesis but disconfirms the second. There are slightly more spoilt ballots and more casting of arbitrary votes in compulsory turnout countries than in those with voluntary voting but no evidence that extremist parties perform better in states with compulsory turnout than they do in those where going to the polls is voluntary (Birch 2009). In fact, survey evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that the vast majority of those who fail to vote do have views on issues of the day and are aware of what is in their own interest and were voting mandatory, the vast majority would likely make electoral decisions on the basis of those interests.

2 The British Election Study codebook and data can be found at www.essex.ac.uk/bes 3 Successful adoption of mandatory electoral participation would also be best accompanied by the introduction of a more proportional electoral system, as well as by vote-facilitation mechanisms such as holding elections over two rest days, introducing small-scale unmanned public polling facilities designed to secure privacy, and the synchronisation of nonWestminster election cycles. It would also be highly advisable to introduce stringent guarantees that information gathered for electoral purposes would not be shared with other public authorities.

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Practical objections If the theoretical arguments against compulsory turnout are weak, the practical obstacles to its introduction remain powerful. The mere fact of being asked to carry out an additional duty is often sufficient to provoke a popular backlash among the British public, and would be all the more likely were the demand in question to sail under the flag of the unfortunate term compulsion. What, then, are the real prospects for the introduction of compulsory turnout in the contemporary British context? First, there is the question of popular support. It must be acknowledged that if the majority of the citizenry is opposed to the move, this seriously challenges any claim that such an institution would be democratic. It is instructive to consider the polling evidence we have on this question: the perceived duty to vote receives wide-

spread support; over three-quarters of those surveyed in the most recent British Election Study averred that it is every citizens duty to vote in an election.2 But when it comes to codifying this duty on the statute books, the public are more sceptical. In the most recent (2005) MORI poll on the subject, a somewhat more modest 36 per cent of survey respondents were in favour of making electoral participation mandatory (cited in Electoral Commission 2006). But public opinion is also susceptible to change: it would be up to the advocates of compulsory turnout to make the case for reform. Second, there is the legitimacy issue. If compulsory turnout is highly unpopular among even a substantial minority of the electorate, this may in fact diminish the legitimacy of the democratic system, rather than improve it. Were the introduction of mandatory electoral participation to be accompanied by a widespread civil disobedience campaign, this would represent not only a formidable compliance challenge, but also a serious public relations issue for any government that had the temerity to go this route. In order to ensure that the legitimacy of such a reform was maximised, it would be best to introduce it only following a successful referendum (cf Keaney and Rogers 2006). Third, there is the issue of implementation. In order to function at all efficiently, any mandatory turnout system would have to be accompanied by a well-administered sanctions regime. At its best, such a regime would make generous allowances for those who experienced genuine hardship in attending the polls, as well as conscientious objectors who were reluctant to vote on grounds of principle. None-of-the-above options on ballot papers would also be useful. Mechanisms such as these would hopefully go a considerable way towards defusing the hardcore dissent that might otherwise threaten the institution.3

Options for reform Debate about electoral compulsion often overlooks the range of policy options available. The fairness principles outlined above do not technically require the participation of the entire electorate at every electoral event. What they do require is that nonparticipation is not skewed in such a way as systematically to advantage or disadvantage any particular group or category of citizen. Were non-participation to be randomised, this would protect fairness while at the same time lessening the burden of voting on individuals. Non-participation could be randomised (or partially randomised) by requiring a representative selection of the electorate to vote at each election, or by requiring each elector to vote at regular intervals starting with the first election for which they were eligible.4 A less random but possibly more practical approach would be to require each voter to vote in a certain proportion of elections, and to let the individual choose which electoral events they wanted to participate in.5

Despite the recent decline in turnout, electoral participation is still a strong social norm. I have sought to argue here that this norm should be institutionalised before it disappears. Compulsory turnout is the most effective way of ensuring that all voices are listened to equally. Social disparities in turnout creates a vicious circle where the less affluent feel their concerns are not being addressed by the political leadership and are in consequence less likely to vote. Knowing that the economically deprived are less likely to vote, political parties are less willing to tailor their policy programmes to them and more likely

to pander to the political tastes of the voting population. Coordination through compulsory turnout, with exemptions for those for whom voting is excessively burdensome, or those who have a deep-seated objection to voting, would distribute the cost of voting equally among the electorate. It also yields outcomes with greater democratic legitimacy and solves the coordination problems faced in the electoral arena by all citizens, but particularly by the most deprived sectors of the electorate. The British public has a right (and perhaps even a duty) to consider the matter, while political parties would do well to consider constitutional reforms alongside fiscal and social solutions to problems of inclusion and social cohesion. The Government should be commended for opening debate on this topic with its recent Green Paper proposal to enshrine in law voting as a civic duty. But the move to make voting an official civic duty is likely to be of symbolic value alone. Only truly mandatory turnout, backed with effective sanctions for non-compliance, can be expected to have any tangible impact on the social composition of the electorate or on turnout rates, and thus yield genuine payoffs in terms of electoral inclusion and fairness.6 Sarah Birch is a Reader in Politics at the University of Essex. Her most recent book, Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, was published in February 2009 by Manchester University Press

Ballinger C (2006) Democracy and Voting London: Hansard Society, September Bernhagen P and Marsh M (2007) The Partisan Effects of Low Turnout: Analysing Vote Abstention as a Missing Data Problem, Electoral Studies 26.3

4 There are good reasons for requiring each newly-eligible elector to vote in the first election for which they are eligible, as research has shown that this has a strong socialising effect that influences their propensity to vote willingly in future elections (Franklin 2004). 5 As these ideas have not yet been tested in any actual elections, the logistics would need to be carefully thought through in the context of changes to electoral registration processes. Though monitoring the participation of individuals across elections would not be practical under current registration procedures, the planned introduction of a joined-up national electronic register as part of the Coordinated Online Record of Electors (CORE) programme would make this possible (see the Ministry of Justice website for details). 6 Non-sanctioned compulsory attendance at the polls does not have any discernable effect on wealth inequality (Birch, 2009: 94, 131).


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Birch S (2009) Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, Manchester: Manchester University Press Chong A and Olivera M (2005) On Compulsory Voting and Income Inequality in a Cross-Section of Countries, Inter-American Development Bank Research Department, Working Paper No. 533 Electoral Commission (2006) Compulsory Voting Around the World, Research Report, June 2006 Fisher SD (2007) (Change in) Turnout and (Change in) the Left Share of the Vote, Electoral Studies 26.3 Franklin MN (2004) Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Hicks AM and Swank DH (1992) Politics, Institutions, and Welfare Spending in Industrialized Democracies, 196082, American Political Science Review 86.3

Keaney E and Rogers B (2006) A Citizens Duty: Voter Inequality and the Case for Compulsory Turnout, London: Institute for Public Policy Research Lardy H (2004) Is There a Right Not to Vote? Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 24.2 Lijphart A (1997) Unequal Participation: Democracys Unresolved Dilemma American Political Science Review 91.1 Ministry of Justice (2009) Rights and Responsibilities: Developing Our Constitutional Framework, March, Cm 7577, available at www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/rights-responsibilities.pdf. Mueller DC and Stratmann T (2003) The Economic Effects of Democratic Participation Journal of Public Economics 87 Wilks-Heeg S (2008) Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern York: Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Wintour P (2008) Ministers Back Radical Plan for Voting Reform Guardian 24 March

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