On not voting

February 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 4 Comments

For reasons I’ll explain further in the future, I refuse to vote in the next election. This isn’t because of apathy, belligerent idealism or the absence of available parties, but because the government seems set to preside over an election in which over 70,000 of its citizens are unlawfully disenfranchised. At this moment, I cannot consider exercising my right to vote when tens of thousands of prisoners are illegally deprived of theirs.

Now let’s consider a fictional scenario. Let’s say that the last Queen’s Speech included a bill to make voting compulsory, that it had sneaked through Parliament and comes into force on the day of the general election. Under such a scenario, my tiny, irrelevant fit of pique over the government’s law-breaking would be elevated from a quiet, inconsequential protest to a criminal act itself. Oh, the irony.

One of the basic errors made in advocating for compulsory voting is diagnosing the refusal to vote as something apolitical. It isn’t. Leaving aside my fictional scenario, the British public isn’t stupid. The vast majority of us know there’s an election coming up and will know when it’s taking place, but what we choose to do with that information is our business.

If large swathes of us decide not to vote – either out of disgust, ignorance, lack of cultural capacity or, yes, apathy – then that’s actually far more reflective of the social and political condition of this nation than any scenario in which we’re forced into the ballot box.

But more worrying than that, the arguments for compulsory voting are unnerving because they rest on the underlying assumption that if people aren’t turning out to vote, then that’s the fault of the people. Therefore, to preserve the legitimacy of the political system, we must make the people turn up to vote. The only onus on the political class is to pass the legislation to make it so.

Even if this were to happen, it would be about as reflective of the public’s faith in politics as having 1,000 Facebook friends is a reflection on your character. It provides the happy illusion of an engaged citizenry & a vibrant democracy but reveals nothing of their engagement with political life. You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and still be a tosser. You can have a 95% turnout rate and still have a broken politics.

Finally, it’s not even necessary. There are still countless different ways you can re-engage an understandably jaded electorate without forcing them to the ballot box. Make voting day a bank holiday. See what effect AV has. Engage with your constituents. If compulsory voting is the first solution you reach for, then you’re demonstrating an absence of imagination.

Voting is an important and gratifying civic duty – I really would recommend to anyone. But the moment you tell people that voting is compulsory is the moment an important part of freedom – and democracy – is lost.



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  1. Hi Neil, good post as usual. I too have been contemplating stepping back from the next election, although till now it was general gloomy pessimism rather than any principled objection.

    Whilst not an advocate of compulsory voting I would have thought such a system would require an abstention option, beyond “None of the Above” or ballot spoiling. It couldn’t just involve vote for Chimp-in-a Suit A, Chimp-in-a Suit B (C,D,etc) or be fined. Plus, wouldn’t official registration of abstention would provide some indication of political discontent and apathy in society, perhaps better than we currently can. At the moment your principle stand is indistinguishable from someone else’s disinterest; perhaps politicians would be forced to engage further with the electorate to stave off the threat of mass abstention.

    Of course, with compulsory voting the best way to protest would be to do as you plan and refuse to vote at all; the proceeding prosecution and/or punishment would serve as better publicity for the cause. It also might lead parties to withdraw further, becoming vaguer, spinning more, blasting out simple narratives and soundbites in the hope that the voter gets attracted to your shiny branded logo on the ballot sheet.

    So, no real point here. Just glad of the distraction from spreadsheets and pdf’s!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Snowshifter, and I’m sorry I haven’t the time to respond at length, but you make an interesting case. I would quibble with this bit though.

    At the moment your principle stand is indistinguishable from someone else’s disinterest; perhaps politicians would be forced to engage further with the electorate to stave off the threat of mass abstention.

    The only thing I would say about this is that if compelled to come to the voting station, I think a lot of people would have the opinion of “well, since I’ve got to come here, I might as well vote for someone”. I whilst compulsion can register discontent, I also think it would suppress it.

  3. Yes, yes, yes and yes

  4. […] this leaflet refers to, in an oblique, misleading and defamatory fashion is that this natio imposes a blanket ban on prisoner’s voting and this is […]

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