Outlaw the apathetic

June 15, 2001

People should be obliged to vote, writes Robert Blackburn, even if they choose 'none of the above'

June 7 2001 was a landmark general election for many reasons, among them the dramatic fall in the numbers casting a vote. The national turnout slumped to 59.2 per cent, down from 71.5 per cent in 1997 and 77.7 per cent in 1992. Although Labour's large majority in the House of Commons remained virtually intact, the party in fact received almost 3 million votes fewer than in 1997, with just one in four of the adult resident population of the United Kingdom voting for it.

The new Labour administration has been deeply troubled about the prospect of declining voter turnout since it took office. This turned to near paranoia in 1999 when Labour was defeated at the European Parliament elections due to a voter turnout of just 24 per cent, giving the Conservatives seven more seats than Labour, despite its double-figure lead in the opinion polls.

Labour's stop-gap solution has been to contemplate all sorts of new methods for making it easier for people to vote. Postal voting on demand has already been introduced, despite concerns about fraud and multiple voting.

Before long we can expect mobile polling booths and electronic voting at computer terminal centres in places such as supermarkets, and possibly even telephone voting, as used by Labour for some internal party elections. Polling day might even become polling week.

All these devices have serious practical drawbacks, but these are likely to be overridden in the drive to increase the vote and so legitimise the government. Our political leaders wish to be able to claim an electoral mandate from the people, particularly when implementing necessary, but contested or unpopular, measures.

But a preferable route to reform might be the introduction of compulsory voting. This has been rejected almost out of hand in the past and failed to be considered seriously by the Home Office working party on electoral procedures in 1997-99. But the House of Commons home affairs committee supported a public debate on compulsory voting in a 1998 report. Following the 2001 election result, this debate now looks set to begin.

Resistance to obligatory voting is largely instinctive and has a great deal to do with a citizen's desire to be left alone and a traditional view of politics as being an essentially voluntary activity. There is also the potential for totalitarian abuse of compulsory voting, most obviously if the state began to check not only that all citizens were voting, but for which party or candidate they were casting their vote.

It would need to be the responsibility of the independent Electoral Commission to supervise the administration of a compulsory voting system.

Another, less convincing, objection is that it might produce hordes of mindless voters being dragooned into the polling booths. This is particularly misconceived if it assumes that people who do not vote are by definition less adroit in their mental faculties than those who do.

All resident adults are already legally obliged to register to vote. Making the act of voting itself obligatory would be hardly any more demanding on citizens' time.

Internationally, compulsory voting is still unusual, although there are several countries where it works well, most famously in Australia, but also in some European countries including Belgium and Luxembourg. The result is a very healthy turnout.

The crucial point often missed in discussions about compulsory voting is that the official ballot paper can, and indeed must if adopted in the UK, provide for a deliberate abstention.

Certainly, forcing people to vote for a candidate or party whom they detest would be a travesty of the democratic process, by any definition.

Robert Blackburn is professor of constitutional law at King's College, London, and the author of The Electoral System in Britain (1995), published by Macmillan, £20.99. He has been an expert adviser to various official bodies and policy think-tanks on parliamentary and election law.

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