During the General Election I was asked a number of times what my first Private Members bill would be. There are lots of topics that could be aired here, but I am very keen on voting reform. Not the argument for PR, or AV, or AV+ but the issue of compulsory voting. This gets to the heart of what price our democracy is and just what obligations we should have as citizens in a democratic country. I believe that we should have compulsory voting, but coupled with a review of the timing of the vote (why a Thursday?) and enabling online voting. In essence, make it compulsory but make it easier and more accessible.
Why make it compulsory? In many elections turnout is generally woeful. If we stagger up to 60% then we are doing well. For local elections, 30/40% would be amazing. But voting at the moment isn’t difficult, it takes maybe 20/30 minutes out of your day at most and for most people, isn’t really a problem. There are people who don’t vote because of illness, lack of support and whilst they may have a postal vote, they might not be able to get it to the post box, but this is a small minority. The majority who don’t vote, it is apathy and if you will, a taking it for granted that someone else will do the work.
There are some who don’t go and vote because they don’t agree with any of the parties or the candidates, which is obvious fine, but you should still go and vote, go and spoil your ballot. I used to think we should have a “none of the above” box, but now I have changed my mind. This is because we forget that this is a participatory democracy, and people who putting themselves up are sticking their head above the parapet, and deserve at least some respect for that. If you vote “none of the above” and then expect new candidates to come forward for you, then perhaps you should be standing yourself.
Then we get onto the “they are all the same” argument – this is simply not true and again, it shows a lack of engagement with the process. If you researched your candidates and looked at what they have done and what they stood for then you would see that they are different, the parties are different. If you don;t agree with any of them or their parties, perhaps you should be considering my previous point again.
The final big reason I often hear is that you/they didn’t deliver a leaflet, or knock on my door. Take Gloucester as an example, a population of 128,500(ish) and we expect a personal knock on the door, when we are in (chances are we could be working, out with friends, shopping etc). Printing that many leaflets isn’t cheap, and we expect them perfectly produced (I’ve made some impressive cock-ups on leaflets in the past). Yet we generally know that a political leaflet has a lifespan of about 3 seconds, from letterbox to bin. When discussing this in the past, a friend highlighted that people don’t get leaflets from X-Factor contestants, pay for the privilege to vote for them and get absolutely nothing for it in return. And X Factor has a great turn out.
I think my point here is this, we do not turn out and vote because we have got better at finding reasons not to vote, or not even being bothered to find an excuse. Therefore the running of the authority/council/country is on the whole voted on by a minority. In this digital age, there is no reason why people in the main can not find out who their candidates are rather than being spoon fed the information. To make it compulsory could encourage people , because they have to make a decision, to make an informed one.
But it also has to become easier too. Whilst mentioning X Factor, it’s not difficult to vote there, as you can do it from the comfort of your sofa, bed, wherever. Now I’m not suggesting that election night should be a text to vote event as such, but there are many organisations that conduct online/remote polling in a safe and secure way. Why not with this? Therefore I think you should be able to vote online, through the post as well as in person (I guess you could do it by ringing up and doing it by voice too, but I think that would be harder to secure).
And finally, why a Thursday. There are historic reasons for this (The reason for choosing Thursday, it is said, was as follows. On Fridays the voters were paid their wages and if they went for a drink in a public house they would be subject to pressure from the Conservative brewing interests, while on Sundays they would be subject to influence by Free Church ministers who were generally Liberal in persuasion. Therefore choose the day furthest from influence by either publicans or Free Church clergymen, namely Thursday), but why now not over a weekend, so it doesn’t disrupt schools etc? Or even a week? The point is this, that we can plan to vote on Thursday but have a last-minute disaster/issue/problem, but a longer period makes it more accessible.
So in summary, we as a population take what we have got for granted and see voting as a right, when it is actually a privilege handed to us by those who have fought for it, and protected by those who continue to do so. I think the state provides a lot for us, and at the moment there is no obligation to the structure of the state except to be here. This should be balanced with accessibility to secure voting and we should make it easier to vote. I would also slip in here that voting should be at 16, not 18 and schools should actually teach students about how our voting/political mechanisms work (or bumble along depending on your view).
Democratic freedom does not mean you are completely free (you have to pay taxes, comply with the justice system, put your bins out etc) so the onus to actually have to vote is not actually a huge step, but I think could be an important one for our future.