Thursday 12 February 2015

Compulsion isn't the answer

Last week the subject of making voting compulsory raised its ugly head again.  This time it was mooted by Labour MP Chris Ruane.  I’m no fan of the idea, to put it mildly – and I’m not sure that the motivations of politicians who propose the idea are entirely honourable either.
The usual rationale is that voting is a duty which citizens should take seriously and that governments elected on a low turnout don’t have the same legitimacy as those elected on a high turnout.  But the reality of politics in the UK these days is that, when it comes to the election of a government, there is no real choice at all.  For sure, we can choose who implements policies, but the policies will be broadly the same whoever forms the government. 
For those who are broadly happy with Labour-Tory policies, why on earth should it become compulsory to choose who implements them - or even care?  And for those who are not happy with any of the options on the table, why compel them to choose the least unpalatable in order to add legitimacy to a system they reject?  It is – and this is as it should be – up to the politicians to give us something worth voting for.
But I don’t think that the real motivation for compulsory voting has much to do with civic duty or legitimacy; it’s much more about seeking a party advantage.  For any party, ensuring that all those who might vote for it are identified and persuaded to go out and cast their votes is a major task – I’ve been involved in doing it often enough to understand that.  The best organised parties, with the most highly motivated voters and activists have a competitive edge over the others.  Compelling people to vote takes away that advantage, so it should come as no surprise that those parties with the least motivated supporters are most likely to find the idea attractive.  (Did I mention that it was a Labour MP raising the matter?)
Those not involved directly often fondly assume that all that canvassing at election time is about persuading people to vote for A or B.  It really isn’t.  Very little happens by way of persuasion; few people are swayed.  It is, rather, about identifying those who have already decided to vote for party A, increasing their motivation to go out and do the deed, and drawing up a list of people who can be cajoled on election day.  If voting were to be compulsory, there would probably be a lot less direct doorstep contact between politicians and electors.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on one's perspective, of course.
But it isn’t really the job of the criminal law to make it easier for parties to get their supporters out to vote; it’s the job of the parties to make it feel worthwhile.

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