‘What measures can be taken to increase voter turnout?’
In order to consider measures to increase voter turnout, the importance of the right to vote and the number of people who exercise that right must first be noted. A high voter turnout is an indicator of a healthy democracy and should be striven for; low turnouts translate into weaker mandates for elected governments. In addition, low turnout can be a sign of systematic voter suppression, such as the selectively applied poll tax and literacy tests which discriminated against African Americans in the United States until the late 1960s. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have experienced a participation crisis in recent years. It is evident that an engaged electorate and high voter turnout should be important for any country that wishes to label itself a democracy but how can this be achieved? Measures taken to increase voter turnout must carefully consider the factors driving the participation crisis that often befalls advanced democracies. With a focus on the United Kingdom, this essay will attempt to assess these measures.
It has been argued that to drive turnout, democracies must increase the accessibility of the electoral process as “the more opportunities provided for individuals to vote”, the higher the likelihood that they will do so. Modernisation can come in forms such as polling across multiple days; it is argued that this would open up the democratic process to all who wish to engage. Alternatives include allowing voting anywhere in a constituency and weekend elections, common in mainland Europe, although 53% of the UK public reject this idea. There seems to be a desire for more substantial change. When refuting these measures, many have citied the financial and bureaucratic issues involved; however accurate this point of contention is, it is more significant to acknowledge that these modernising measures do not address the disengagement and disenfranchisement that drive low voter turnout. The idea of a ‘national day of voting’, or bank holiday, engages more directly with the problem by encouraging excitement about the electoral process yet further measures would still be required.
Furthermore, arguments have been made for the modernisation of the voting process using the internet. Proponents of online voting claim that not only would it increase the youth vote by utilising a tool young people often use, it would remove barriers to voting faced by disabled people. While this measure again faces the issue of not targeting the key psychological factors behind low voter turnout, movement towards a more accessible society should not be discouraged. Supporters cite an Electoral Commission survey which found that half of non-voters would be more likely to participate if online voting was available. Concerns have been raised about electoral fraud and as fear of election meddling by foreign powers is at record levels, these should not be dismissed. Additionally, the increasingly adversarial nature of politics has led to anxiety about the secrecy of online voting. However, despite these challenges, online voting should be seriously considered as a positive move towards modernising democracy to reflect the society it represents.
Desire to increase political engagement amongst young people and drive voter turnout has led many to argue for the widening of the franchise to 16 year olds. Irrespective of questions about young people’s political literacy, offering the vote to those of school age would allow classroom lessons about democracy to be acted upon with immediacy. Moreover, this demographic demonstrated political engagement in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, with 80% signing up to vote.Although turnout as a whole was high in this instance, there is an argument that young voters would bring momentum to the political process; social media outreach is just one example. Their participation through other channels has also been shown: hundreds of teenagers marched on Trafalgar Square the day after the Brexit referendum. Evidence suggests voting is a habit-forming activity: it can therefore be concluded that widening the franchise to this politically excited demographic would bolster voter turnout in the medium to long term. While it is true that “the political class sees the possibility of electoral advantage” 6 from the youth vote, there is every likelihood that this demographic would offer a rebuke to the governing classes.
Claims have been made that compulsory voting is the only effective way to tackle ‘laziness’ within the electorate. This relies heavily on the assumption that voting is a civic duty; those who disagree would say that the responsibility to drive citizens to the polls rests with politicians and their policies. This measure addresses the symptoms of low voter turnout yet fails to reach the underlying issues. There is more to be said for compulsory first-time voting, due to the habitual nature of casting a ballot; yet both methods could provoke resentment among those wary of the government’s increasing role in the lives of individuals. Automatic registration, while costly, would be ideal in terms of greatly increasing accessibility and easing the voting procedure without causing acrimonious feelings towards the process of democracy.
Perhaps the most constructive, long-term oriented measure suggested is to increase the awareness and civic education of the public. Many people feel disengaged with politics due to feeling ill-informed; this can enhance the general feeling of apathy and separation from representatives. Furthermore, positive reinforcements such as an “I voted” button on Facebook can serve as motivating factors by showing the actions of peers. As well as for general elections, this can be expanded to less publicised races such as Police and Crime Commissioner elections. This heightened awareness can be continued through citizenship education. Highlighting the historic significance of the right to vote and the practicalities involved would target both accessibility and lack of will. Effects may not be immediately evident but will certainly be felt once students reach a voting age. A pertinent measure for recent times might be the promotion of a more transparent parliament; the last few decades have been mired with scandal, which has diminished many citizens’ faith in the system.
None of these measures can be considered wholly successful if the causes of low voter turnout are systemic; more substantial electoral reform may be necessary. The United Kingdom’s system of First-Past-the-Post has led to inordinate levels of ‘wasted votes’, causing frustration amongst voters. The Single Transferable Vote system is favoured by the Electoral Reform Society who believe it would increase the proportionality of parliament. Other alternatives exist but all those considered should meet the primary aim of granting citizens greater control over their representatives. Reform beyond the Westminster elections would involve decreasing centralisation in favour of devolution; the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom have shifted the balance of power. There is an additional argument that devolution to the English regions would decrease feelings of remoteness from politics and empower citizens to vote. Asymmetrical devolution has been the cause of growing disengagement with politics in recent years. The economy of Greater Manchester is larger than that of Wales; it is hardly surprising that lack of localised autonomy can drive feelings of disenfranchisement.
Although the increase to turnout may not be consequential, it would be worth considering expanding the franchise to incarcerated individuals if only from a human rights perspective. While a small minority of the United Kingdom’s prisoners – around 100 – are enfranchised 8 , in response to European Court of Human Rights ruling declaring the blanket ban a human rights violation, there remains around 93,000 who cannot vote. While not all are popular, every measure mentioned henceforth has been afforded a reasonable amount of discussion in the media. It seems that prisoners’ rights are a taboo subject and many fear association with their cause. Be this as it may, prisoners’ enfranchisement is perhaps the most significant measure discussed here; in democratic societies, voting rights establish the civic equality of citizens. By denying these rights to some, the possibility that they will be revoked for others remains open. Importantly, this would help close the human rights gap between the United Kingdom and many European countries.
In conclusion, many of the measures discussed here are worthy of serious contemplation by both the public and the government. Productive conversations may be difficult in the Brexit-centric political climate of recent times; public weariness makes it unlikely that momentum for any major constitutional change will be achieved. However, this should not hinder ardent reformists. Anger towards recent events could certainly fuel turnout at upcoming elections and progressive measures could be made more popular due to general frustration with the United Kingdom’s antiquated political customs. Debate about what constitutes democracy is rife in the wake of Brexit and more than ever, there seems to be an understanding of the historic importance of voting and its modern day political ramifications. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to give the victory to the right, not bloody bullets, but peaceful ballots only, are necessary” will be seriously discussed is not unfounded and they should certainly be taken into consideration by all those invested in democracy.
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