Compulsion doesn’t cure apathy

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Australia boasts a 95% turnout rate every election season thanks to their adoption of compulsory voting in the 1920s. In Australia, refusing to show up to the polls – unless you can prove illness or an emergency to the state’s liking – results in a fine, up to $170. If that isn’t paid, a court hearing is the next step. Advocates of compulsory voting point to high turnout numbers and claim the system ‘works’. But getting high voter turnout is not a good thing in and of itself. If high numbers are the result of engaged, politically interested people choosing to vote for on issues they care about, that’s great; that result will have stemmed from politicians taking to the streets and doing their jobs. But getting high percentages through coercion and threats of punishment isn’t something to boast about.

In September 2013, IPPR proposed that the UK make voting mandatory for first-time voters, to ensure they are registered to vote and to set them on a ‘good’ voting path for the future. Not only does the well-meaning proposal reeks of paternalism, but it is also the wrong way to get young people genuinely engaged in politics.

Many young people don’t feel they have a stake in political decisions, while others feel their opinions don’t carry weight within the parties. Couple that with making their first adult interaction with the state be one that’s compulsory, met with fines and courts, and you may just turn a potentially interested voter off for life.

But young people aren’t the only ones who feel abandoned by the political system. The integrity of democracy is breaking across western countries, as the political systems prioritize taking care of promises made to special interest groups, unions and corporations before they address the promises made to voters during the election season. Many feel voting has become a spectacle - just another occasion to glorify the state. And even if there is an option to spoil one’s vote, the state has still made people complicit in upholding a political system they may disagree with.

Those who would advocate for the Australian system and propose a compulsory vote on all adult citizens in the UK have carelessly forgotten that avoiding the ballot box in a check on government power.

Refusing to take part in what is thought to be a civic duty is an act of civil disobedience – and civil disobedience, especially when it is as thoughtful and safe as not showing up to the polls – is a health-meter for the state of the country’s political parties and political system as a whole.

The right to vote is the choice to vote – or not vote. That freedom must be upheld, both to provide a check on over-reaching governments, but also to act as a safeguard for individual liberty.