The Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) new report, Divided democracy: Political inequality in the UK and why it matters, takes a novel approach to the issue of declining voter turnout.
Declining voter turnout is not a new issue, nor is it one of concern only to the UK. While most studies look at the reasons why more and more citizens are staying away from the ballot box, this report looks at the consequences of lower voter participation among certain sectors of society, young voters and lower-income voters.
It is this growing inequality of turnout that is the focus of the IPPR’s research:
Unequal turnout matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voters and thus threatens a central claim of democracy: that every citizen’s preference, no matter their status, should count equally. (p. 2)
This argument isn’t new, of course. We’ve all frequently heard people say that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about policy decisions that are made. In the UK 1987 general election, there was a 4 percentage point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income group and the poorest. By the 2010 general election, this gap had increased to 23%:
The age gap is even more striking. Just 44 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Turnout inequality between young and old voters has grown at an alarming rate in recent years – the turnout gap between these two age-groups jumped from 18 points in 1970 to 32 points in 2010 – and shows little sign of being reversed. Worse still, there is now clear evidence of a ‘cohort effect’: younger people today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age. (p. 2)
What did this mean for the Government’s austerity measures?
IPPR’s analysis of the 2010 spending review shows that those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote. The cuts have disproportionately affected the young and the poor – precisely those groups that vote with least frequency. People aged 16–24 face cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 10 per cent for those aged 55–74. Those with annual household incomes under £10,000 stand to lose the equivalent of 41 per cent of their average income through cuts; by contrast, those with incomes over £60,000 will lose on average £2,104, which represents just 3 per cent of this group’s average income. (p. 2)
The bulk of the report is a detailed analysis of voter participation rates in the UK and the impact of the 2010 spending review. What I want to comment on, however, are the two recommendations put forward to address the problem: universal compulsory voting and compulsory first-time voting.
IPPR has often argued in favour of compulsory voting. While acknowledging that this is often a controversial proposal, compulsory voting is “currently practised in approximately a quarter of the world’s democracies”. They also point out that in none of these countries is voting itself actually compulsory. What is mandatory is showing up at the polls. Studies of countries with compulsory voting all show an increased voter turnout, and more importantly, “drastically” reduced turnout inequality through the greater representation of “marginalised and apathetic” groups. Despite the benefits of compulsory voting, the IPPR researchers seem resigned to the fact that the British will never accept it given that it flies in the face of a citizen’s right to choose not to vote, and so they propose instead compulsory first-time voting.
Compulsory first-time voting is just that: voters would be obliged to go to the polls once, on the first occasion they were eligible. They wouldn’t actually have to vote – they’d only have to turn up – but as an added incentive, there would be a “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. To ensure compliance, a small fine would be levied against those who failed to turn up at the polls.
Why force first-time voting? The researchers offer the following reasons. Research has shown that if people vote in the first election they’re eligible to vote in, they are more likely to vote in future elections. Forcing them to vote the first time could lead to voluntary continued voting. Second, this initiative deliberately targets young people, who have the lowest participation rates. Third, if young people turned out in larger numbers, politicians would be forced to take their concerns into consideration. And lastly, there could be a trickle down effect: “if young people from poorer backgrounds were required to vote then this might encourage their non-voting parents and grandparents to exercise their democratic right, thereby closing the political inequality gap between the classes as well as generations.” (p. 22)
I don’t dislike this idea, but I admit to being somewhat confounded by the “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. While it is not 100% clear in the report, I assume that everyone’s ballot paper would have this option, otherwise you’d need two ballot papers, one for “regular” (non first-time) voters, and one for the first-timers. While doable, this seems like it would be a lot of work and added confusion for no good reason. We assume then that the “none of the above” option would be available to all voters. I find it rather interesting that this is mentioned twice (pp. 2 and 21), almost in passing, but never really explained or dealt with in any detail.
I think we’ve all wished at some point that there was such an option on our ballot paper. But what would happen if that option actually won in some constituencies – meaning the “none of the above” option garners more votes than any of the candidates? Of course, with First-Past-the-Post, the candidate with the most votes, even if they were second to “none of the above” would still end up elected. However, this strikes me as problematic – for a couple of reasons. The first is purely optics. I can’t imagine any candidate would feel particularly happy to have “won” by finishing second to “none of the above”. If this occurred in only a handful of constituencies, it might not be that big a deal, but if it occurred in a lot of constituencies, I can’t help but think that some would question the wisdom of including that option on the ballot. The second reason ties in with the first. There is already significant displeasure with the fact that under FPTP, a candidate doesn’t need majority support to win; he or she simply needs more votes than any other candidate. Consequently, a majority of MPs end up elected with less than 50% of the vote. If you add in another option – specifically “none of the above”, that risks reducing the winning candidate’s percentage of the vote that much more. Part of me can’t help but think that the combination of MPs being elected after finishing second to “none of the above” and with even lower percentages of the vote really won’t do much to improve anyone’s opinion of politicians. If anything, it might even undermine their legitimacy.