Since the Second World War, voting participation has declined from 84% of those eligible to vote to 65%. The figures for local council elections are even worse. Why has there been this shocking decline in participation in the democratic process over the last 60 years, and should people be forced to vote, as is the case in the Australian Federal elections?
There are a number of reasons why voting participation has declined. Both major parties now fight for “the middle ground”, with no clear-cut distinction over a wide swathe of issues between them. As a result, people find it difficult to see a real difference between the Conservative and Labour parties. Neither seem able to deliver the promises made in their manifesto, either. There is also the failiure of liberal democracy to deliver economic prosperity or social mobility to large sections of the population; if you cannot better yourself, why vote?
Over the past 60 years the standards and conduct of public debate have become tarnished – the direct result of the media’s continual diet of sensationalism, confrontational debate and obsession with celebrity. Finally, there is the drawback of a voting system in which the winner takes all. There is little room for majority parties concerned with issues outside the traditional mainstream concerns of the establishment. On the other hand, the two party system has produced stable government over a long period of time.
Should we therefore legislate for mandatory voting? In theory such a move would force those who benefit most from taxation and the provision of social services to vote and choose their leaders, justifying their right to complain. Unfortunately, the experience of Holland suggests that compulsory voting does not work for very long, even if the system is backed by fines and other sanctions. Also, reluctant voters might be forced to enter the ballot box, but there is no way to control the spoiled or number of blank ballot papers.
More positive reforms might include the introduction of “on-line” digital voting, of mobile voting booths, more flexible postal voting, changes in the location of voting centres, and the use of shopping malls and large department stores and other sites where large numbers of people congregate, or even moving election day to Sunday, rather than a weekday.
One thing is certain, if people do not vote, the quality of democratic government will continue to decline.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.