We asked several Britons whether voting should be compulsory in the UK.
We’re comfortable with being forced to things in other areas of our civic lives, such as the requirement to educate our children or to wear seat belts. Surely our democracy is valuable enough to deserve similar support. There are many countries where democracy is violated and people don’t get a chance to express their views. The fact that we have a democracy means we have to use it and be thankful for the opportunity we have.
A great many British people feel that there is something totalitarian about being forced to vote; that it’s the kind of law resorted to in states with a weak democratic culture or fragile national identity. It may be regarded as a moral duty to vote, but I consider making it a legal obligation to be a violation of democratic foundations. If the politicians and political parties were truly interested in democratic participation, they would do everything they could to show that they were open to ordinary voters’ needs.
The freedom of choice in a democracy must include the freedom not to choose. Rejecting the opportunity to vote is essential for this political system. It is my right to express when I do not want to support any of the available candidates. We should not be trying to hide exactly how unpopular they are. We need to avoid the arrogant assumption that whatever the political parties offer to the electorate is good enough for them to make a choice: sometimes, for some of them, it will not be.
Compulsory voting is not just an artificial increase in voter turnout but it has the potential to refresh our democracy. Young people and members of disadvantaged communities rarely go to the polls. And these are the people who have the most to gain from political decisions. We need to bring politicians and their parties closer to these people and show them the power of their civic rights. In some states it’s been proven that compulsory voting reconnects those who are distant from its country’s issues or even on the margins of their communities.
Well…, enforced participation is artificial and may be worse than no participation at all. What’s more, it doesn’t show real choices at all. But it’s also true that after each election we hear that not even two-thirds of the people turn out. And the ones who didn’t show up at the polls complain the most bitterly about the politicians and their parties. So I think it is not entirely unacceptable to transform the right to vote into a duty to vote. After all, going to the polls can also mean crossing the whole list and not choosing any candidate.
Adapted from “Speakeasy" XXXI 1/2008