Increasing Youth Turnout: The Case for Compulsory Voting in the UK

David Patterson

Polling Station,_2010

Polling Station,_2010

It has long been the case that the over 40s have turned out to vote in larger numbers than their younger counterparts. While research shows that 64% of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote (a figure much higher than the claimed 36% by Skydata), this number should have been much higher – especially given the  deciding number of votes in the last referendum was just 800,000. I advocate that the only way to increase voter turnout by Generation Y – those born between 1980 and 1999 – is to make voting compulsory.

Compulsory voting means that any vote  – be it an election or deciding on a single issue, such as leaving the EU – carries the support of the whole electorate. This legitimises the result since no one is able to dispute that one demographic carries more electoral sway than another. This fact alone would have helped mediate the anger felt by many young people after the Brexit result was announced last month. Many  under 30s took to the streets and social media to rile against what they perceived as a decision taken on their behalf by retirees. Over 4 million have signed an online petition calling for a second referendum since the turnout was below 75%. However, if a higher number of under 30s had voted these arguments would not have been applicable and the vote would have seemed much more legitimate.

Generations of people before ours fought for the right to vote. The Chartists of the 1840s; the Women’s Suffrage Movement; the men and women who legitimized their citizenship during the sacrifices made during World War One. Yet ever since universal suffrage became a reality in 1928, voter turnout has steadily declined to an average turnout of just 62.9%. There are a number of reasons why voter turnout has been espoused. Notable mentions among an infinite list of complaints include the fact people don’t feel the catch-all parties define them anymore; the rising mistrust of politicians; the feeling that we are alienated from the system; or the rise of politics through other means. Whilst voting remains a choice, the turnout in referenda and other elections will continue to dwindle unless young people are forced to exercise their democratic right – through compulsory voting.

Places where this system has long been the norm include much of South America and Australia. Down Under, you face a fine of $20 and the possibility of a criminal record for failing to turn out to vote. Interestingly this system of fining an electorate for not exercising their civic duty does not result in 100% turnouts: with this month’s general election generating a turnout of 94%. Nevertheless, this legislation leads to much higher turnouts in young adults than our current system which relies purely on someone’s sense of civic duty.

Critics of compulsory voting argue that enforced voting means that politicians don’t have as much incentive to inspire people to vote for them. Rather, they rely on negative campaigning techniques, urging citizens to vote against another party, instead of for them. Whilst this may be plausible, a higher turnout amongst young voters could force politicians to place more importance on the issues that affect under 30s. Currently, many young people feel that politicians favour the elderly. For example during the 2010 general election every major party made promises to safeguard pensions; however, University fees were trebled despite widespread protests amongst the young.

Another critique of compulsory voting is that you cannot force people to vote when they see every option on the ballot paper as a bad one. However, even if that is the case, it is still important to turn out to spoil your ballot paper. By simply turning out to draw a kitten over your ballot paper, you are engaging in the process and thereby legitimizing the result that follows. A less interesting option could also be to simply include a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot paper.

Ultimately compulsory voting alone would not make young people politically engaged but would increase turnout.  This would go a long way to improving voter turnout for young adults who have consistently failed to engage in the electoral process on the same scale of their forbearers. More political engagement is preferable but higher turnouts are needed if we are to see less post-Brexit debates over any future election result’s validity.

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