Boycotting The Ballot Box: The Real Democratic Deficit?

Voting, in the opinion of US Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, “is the most precious right of every citizen”. She considers that we all have “a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of our voting process”. Russell Brand, the British “comedian and revolutionary”, disagrees. For him, politicians are “frauds and liars” and it’s a waste of time participating in a system which is “nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of the economic elites”. Brand made a brief exception to this rule when he exhorted the electorate to cast their votes for Ed Miliband in the General Election on May 7th. As soon as it was clear, however, that David Cameron & the Conservatives had won a majority of the seats in the new Parliament, Brand performed what the Sunday Times portrayed (on 10th May) as “the “Speediest U-Turn” and disowned his previous support for the now former Leader of the Labour Party.

Jolyon Rubinstein, the writer and performer for the satirical BBC TV 3 show “The Revolution Will Be Televised”, though evidently sharing many of Brand’s political views, on the contrary told the BBC’s “This Week” programme on 30th April that the young generation “needs to control its future by engaging in the process”.

All this matters because the outcome of this General Election has been determined not just by how many people have decided to vote – but also by those who’ve concluded it’s simply not worth the effort. A “Guardian” editorial on 16th April suggested that around 50% of the UK electorate now feel that “none of the parties represent their interests”. Although an estimated half a million people rushed to meet the registration deadline of midnight on Monday 20th April so they could vote on May 7th, the trend in “turnout” still appears to be inexorably downwards (except in Scotland). The Guardian editorial fretted that the electorate has become “fragmented, disengaged and possibly significantly disenfranchised”. Moreover, that “support for parliament as a necessary part of Britain’s democracy is ebbing in a manner that should alarm all democrats”.

The statistics seem to justify this concern: According to Leala Padmanabhan of BBC News, the “high water mark” was in 1950, when “turnout reached 84%” (the same as in last year’s Scottish Independence referendum). Over the last three UK General Elections, however, “percentage voting has averaged 62%. In 2010, 44% of 18-24 year-olds voted compared to 65% of the whole electorate – a difference of 21%.”

So what’s the solution? The outspoken broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman “has called for voting to be made compulsory”, though as BBC News has pointed out, “the idea of forced voting in a democracy would be controversial”. David Winnick, the Labour MP for Walsall in the last Parliament, “wants the UK to consider a system similar to that in Australia, where (since 1924) people who don’t vote, or at least express their intention to abstain (and the reasons) are fined”. In that country, the penalty for citizens over the age of 18 who don’t go to the polls is $20 Australian dollars and  they face court action if it’s not paid.

The “Debatewise” website has considered both sides of the argument: In favour of compulsory voting: “It would decrease apathy, cause more people to become interested in politics” and (similar to the Hilary Clinton view), there is “a civic duty to vote”. Against: “People have the right not to vote, compulsory voting does not enhance democracy and persuasion is more effective than coercion”. Debatewise also advocates that voting in UK General Elections should be moved from the traditional Thursday to Saturday or Sunday.

The Guardian columnist Elliot Frankal has compiled a list of 30 nations that where voting is mandatory. Belgium introduced the system “in 1892 for men and 1949 for women”. Non-voters may “face difficulties getting a job in the public sector”. In Peru, “voters must carry a stamped voting card for several months after the vote in order to obtain some goods and services”. It’s a similar situation in Bolivia, where (wrote Frankal) non-voters “can be prevented from drawing their salary from the bank” and in Greece, whose citizens “could have problems obtaining a new passport or driver’s licence” if they can’t provide proof of voting. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Uruguay and Paraguay are among other Latin American countries that “officially require their citizens to vote”. Venezuela (and the Netherlands) have “tried and abandoned” the idea.

Meanwhile: The “Votes At 16” campaign is demanding that the UK political system should “show trust and respect” for that age group. It points out that “over 1.5 million 16-17 year-olds are denied the vote in the UK” but that the over 16’s can vote if they live in the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Austria, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador, Germany (for “Lander” or state elections),Hungary (if they meet specified criteria), Slovenia (if they are employed) and (optionally) Argentina. It notes that 16-17 year-olds were given the right to vote in Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum and insists that this should be extended to the whole of Britain. “What’s stopping Parliament (it asks) from ending this injustice?”.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on May 4th, 2015 by Colin D Gordon

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