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Professor Sarah Birch: First-time compulsory voting is the best way to make democracy a habit

Ballot BoxProfessor Sarah Birch, University of Glasgow, co-author of the IPPR report Divided Democracy: Political Inequality in the UK.

Mark Wallace is entirely right when he argues that politicians must change their ways if they are to provide people with a good reason to vote. That is precisely the aim of first-time compulsory voting. Granted, it will require one small and not-very-onerous act on the part of each young person, but the people it is really going to force to change are politicians.

In recent decades political parties have become considerably more adept at targeting voters with their communications. Not surprisingly, they tend to target groups that are most likely to vote. This has meant that in recent years fewer and fewer politicians are speaking to the needs and concerns of young people. And policy outputs bear this out.

Our research estimates that the recent round of spending cuts has resulted in an average loss of services equivalent to 28% of the annual household income for those between the ages of 16 and 24, but only 10% for those aged 55 to 74. Young people are getting short-changed by governments of all complexions, and that is because politicians have scant incentive to listen to them.

Exhortations to change politicians’ behaviour are idealistic and out of touch with political reality. If politicians are to change, they need a reason to change, and first-time compulsory voting gives them a reason to alter their behaviour. By boosting the collective voice of young people, this reform would make all parties more attentive to their concerns.

There are also other reasons to support first-time compulsory voting. The idea that most non-voters are too alienated by politics to go to the polls is only partially true. Decades of research on electoral participation tell us that the true reasons are more complex. People forget; people can’t be bothered to find out where the polling station is or when it is open; or voting simply isn’t seen as something they can connect with. Such cultural and lifestyle reasons account for far more voter abstention than active dislike of politicians.

These ‘lifestyle non-voters’ might well be inclined to vote if they were nudged into having a go. Just once. And there is considerable evidence that if people vote at the start of their careers as citizens, they are more likely to carry on voting.

We already compel young people to attend school. Later, we will compel them to do jury service. With the addition of a ‘none of the above’ box on their ballot, it is by no means an infringement on their liberty to require them to vote in their first election as eligible citizens.  

There are thus two good reasons for requiring young people to attend a polling station once in their lives: to pressure politicians into engaging with them and to help make voting habitual.


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