21 March 2006

Voting: More Than Just a Right

"The current way of doing politics is killing politics"

These words have been swimming in my head since I read them in the POWER report exactly two weeks ago.

The current state of our political landscape can be summarised thusly:
  • Labour won the last General Election on 35.2% of the vote, gaining 54.95% - or 355 - of the seats in the House of Commons.
  • We do not hold elections to our Upper House, instead members are "appointed".
  • Turnout in 2005 was 61.4%, up on 2001 (by 2%) but still historically speaking very low - and indeed it could be lower as the accuracy of the electoral register is doubtful.
People feel that politics and how they vote has no real effect on the way the country is run and in many ways they are right - one vote is worth next to nothing, except in extremely marginal constituencies. With each passing election it becomes more and more apparent that some form of proportional representation is required for elections to the House of Commons in order to reflect the true wishes of the nation. But something more fundamental is required, something which will bring "power to the people" and re-engage us in the political process.

What is this fundamental change though? In Switzerland, a citizen can gather a certain number of signatures and trigger a referendum on legislation. Would this work in Britain? Would we, when called into action, sign a petition to renationalise the railways, reform the NHS or support a stance on any one of a multitude of issues which our legislators have to deal with every day*? Or would we sit back and say it is somebody else's problem, as our politicians seem to believe we are doing at the moment - evidenced by they're numerous statements about "the general public's apathy".

Perhaps an increase in the number of MPs, or a directly elected Upper House is the answer. These issues must be resolved soon, because if power isn't given back to the people soon, who knows, they might just take it for themselves. Strong words, I know, but the level of disenfranchisement in this country is worrying.

I've gotten slightly off the point, but what I have said above is ultimately relevant. My point is this - there is only one guaranteed way to increase turnout and that is compulsory voting.

Forcing someone to do anything against their will is difficult in a liberal democracy but "the duty to vote entails only a very minor restriction" as all that is required is that a voter turns up and "at that point, citizens may choose to refuse to vote; the right not to vote remains intact... Moreover, compulsory voting entails a very small decrease in freedom compared with many other problems of collective action that democracies solve by imposing obligations: jury duty, the obligations to pay taxes, military conscription, compulsory school attendance, and many others"** Note that compulsory voting is a feature of some Western democracies, most notably Australia, which hasn't had a turnout of less than 90% since it was introduced in 1924.

How can compulsory voting be aligned with the idea that the right to vote follows from it the right not to vote? Perhaps by reasoning that the right to vote is in fact more than a right, it is a civic responsibility or duty - the duty of the voter to decide who will run the country seems reasonable as s/he will be the one that will benefit (or not) from the new government. Like the relationship between taxes and public services, why should a citizen be allowed to "free ride" on an electoral choice they hadn't made - we expect someone who doesn't pay their taxes without good reason to be pursued and bought to justice swiftly partly because we don't want them to be using public services they haven't paid for, perhaps the same should apply to the relationship between voting and public policy decisions.

However, I accept that compulsory voting - whilst acknowledged as easy to practically implement - is thought to be hard to politically implement and could result in a backlash by the elector against forced participation in politics. Here's a possible solution: A deal between the elector and the politicians - a reformation of the political process which will ensure greater citizen participation will be coupled, indeed it will be in the same Act of Parliament, with compulsory voting. The public must accept that they must vote, as voluntary voting:
"rigs [the] electoral system. It rigs it against young people. It rigs it against people of non-English speaking background. It rigs it against people who do not live in the major capital cities. It rigs it against the poor and the more vulnerable in our society. It rigs it against the disadvantaged in our society"
Senator John Faulkner, former Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Senate

Am I playing devil's advocate?

PS. I apologise to my regular readers for the intermission in the service of less serious material, such as this.

* When they're in session - on average, the House of Commons is out of session (210 days) more than it is in session (155 days)
** Lijphart in "Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma"


Will said...

Compulsory voting will increase turnout in the sense that the figures will go up, but instead of dealing the underlying disenfranchisement is just removes a way of measuring it.

Joe Otten said...

Will is right, low turnout is a symptom of low engagement, not a cause. Compulsory voting would mask the symptom and do nothing for the problem.

It is engagement with politics that should be seen as a civic duty, not voting. People who don't engage with politics, frankly, are just adding noise to the signal, if they vote.