If Compulsory Voting Is The Answer, You’re Asking The Wrong Question

Last week’s election raised a lot of questions, including “should Nick Clegg resign?”, “should people calling for Nick Clegg to resign shut up?” and “why didn’t you vote for me? Is it because I smell?” (that last one mostly being asked by me, to be fair). But one topic I’ve seen coming up over and over is the low turnout.

And what people seem to be saying, over and over again, is “UKIP only won because hardly anyone voted! We should make voting compulsory!”

Well, no.

Firstly, because you don’t just change the rules because you don’t like the result. That’s not how democracy should work. I know (from bitter experience during the AV campaign) that the supermajority of people don’t actually care in the least about democracy, and just want to make sure their side wins, but a few of us actually do care about that kind of thing.

But also because compulsory voting, like internet voting, is one of those solutions in search of a problem that people keep bringing up, that wouldn’t actually do anything worthwhile.

Let’s look at those groups who don’t vote, shall we?

Firstly, there are a small number of people who have religious, political, or ethical objections to voting. It would be iniquitous to make these people vote. Yes, even if there was a RON or None Of The Above option, yes even if they could spoil their ballot paper. If you’re going to force people to act against their conscience, it should do much, much more for the public good than the average vote does.

That leaves the other two groups — the ignorant and the apathetic.

The ignorant are that group who simply don’t know enough to make any kind of informed decision. There are a lot of people who don’t know the most basic facts about politics — people who couldn’t name a single politician, or a single political stance of any of the parties. My own sister, for example, didn’t even know there was an election last week, despite me standing as a candidate. This isn’t because she’s stupid (she’s got a first class honours degree in physics) but because she’s never paid attention to politics. Unless you get very involved in political campaigning, though, you’ll never realise just how many of these people there are, because people who discuss politics on the internet tend only to talk with other people who know about politics. It’s only when you go knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and phoning people up, that you realise just how many people still think the SDP is a national party, for example.

The apathetic, on the other hand, are those who consider that the result makes no difference to them. Again, this is a large chunk of the electorate. It may seem daft to those of us who spend our lives obsessing over such things, but there are a lot of people who really, really, don’t see any difference between, say, a UKIP government and a Green one.

Now, yes, you can get the ignorant and apathetic to vote, if you want, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage them, because they’ll essentially cast their votes at random. This is one of the things that confuses me about this campaign to make voting compulsory — since it seems to be based around a desire for a different result, it’s essentially saying “Yes, the people who cared enough to vote and who knew enough to know what day the election was disagreed with me, but all the people who didn’t know there was an election on and didn’t care would have voted my way!”

But more importantly, it’s not a solution to the problem. It’s a sticking plaster. The solution to ignorance isn’t to force people to make choices they don’t understand, but to make sure people have more information — civics lessons in schools, voter information campaigns, and political campaigns that actually tell voters what it is the parties stand for (the Lib Dem campaign this time, while misguided in many ways, at least had a clear message about the party’s policies and priorities).

And the solution to apathy isn’t to force people to make a choice they don’t care about, but to make them care. Have political parties that don’t all compete for the same tiny space of centre-right ground, but instead present different visions of how the world should be, and have a voting system that makes their votes matter, so they can see it makes a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them who they vote for.

But these are things that require actual work, that can’t be distilled into a single tweet, and that take time to have an effect. No, far better to go around shouting for quick-fix “solutions” that don’t actually fix the problem they’re intended to solve, but that are simple enough to sum up in a soundbite. You know, like UKIP do. Maybe that result wasn’t as inaccurate as these campaigners think…

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