Compulsory Voting, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Hannah Kearns

What do you know about Belgium? That it’s a country famous for producing the healthiest food (chocolate, chips and waffles)? That they make great beer? Or if your life doesn’t just revolve around food and drink like mine does, perhaps you also know that a Flemish (Dutch-speaking) Belgian is statistically more likely to marry someone from El Salvador than they are to marry a Wallonia (French-speaking) person from their own country?

Politically, though, this small, flat, trilingual land on the other side of the North Sea has another reason to be interesting- because it’s one of a handful of democracies in the world where voting is a legal obligation. Throughout history, people have fought and died for the right to vote- and continue to do so around the world; but this PPS post takes a look at what it means to have the right not to vote.

Three reasons for compulsory voting

  1. In the 2015 General Election, less than two-thirds of those eligible to vote actually did so. This means MPs were elected based only on the views of this section of the population. If voting was compulsory, the wishes of every citizen would be taken into account in assigning seats and we’d be electing decision-makers with a larger mandate.
  2. Certain demographic groups (younger people, the socio-economically disadvantaged and those in ethnic minorities) tend to be under-represented among voters. This means that elections are disproportionately skewed in favour of the choices made by well-off white people aged 45 and over, while the voices of others go unheard. Arguably the most compelling argument for compulsory voting is that it could dramatically reduce these inequalities.
  3. If everyone was legally required to vote, this might encourage more people to follow politics and become involved with it.

Three drawbacks of compulsory voting

  1. Imposing sanctions such as fines on non-voters is rather a negative strategy for increasing voter turn-out. It would arguably be preferable to see governments implementing positive strategies to encourage or incentivise voting.
  2. We at Talk Politics may be a little bit biased on this one, but there is a danger that introducing compulsory voting without compulsory political education would lead to people with little interest in politics voting purely to avoid repercussions and making ill-informed decisions as a result.
  3. Compulsory voting may also lead to frustrations among those who are truly passionate about politics, who would see the impact of their vote diluted by large numbers of votes from individuals who were only taking to the ballot box because it was a legal requirement, and who were relatively uninterested in the outcome of the election.

So, is compulsory voting a brilliant idea or a terrible one? Vote in our poll below!

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