Should voting be compulsory?
Democracies across the world risk becoming gerontocracies: government, increasingly for the grey vote, by the grey vote. In the recent US mid-term elections, for example, 18 to 29-year-olds constituted just 13 per cent of the electorate; while in the UK’s last general election, the turnout rate for a typical 70-year-old was 36 per cent higher than for a typical 20-year-old.
Profound inequalities in electoral participation are also evident by class; UK voters in the highest income bracket were 43 per cent more likely to vote than those in the bottom fifth income group, a five-fold increase since the 1980s. Many other European countries have experienced a similar surge in turnout inequality.
The consequences for democracy and economic equality are dire. Politics becomes tilted in favour of high-turnout groups, usually older and wealthier voters, reinforcing a cycle of disaffection and disengagement among the politically marginalized and aiding the one per cent in the process.
Tinkering around the edges won’t revive the idea of democracy as a whole way of life, where each citizen’s interest must be accounted for. To arrest the hollowing-out of democracy, voting should be made a civic duty for first-time voters, with compulsory attendance at the ballot box.
This doesn’t compel you to vote for a political party – there would be a ‘none of the above’ option. Nor does it preclude working to build up more participatory, direct and non-hierarchical forms of democratic life; compulsory first-time voting is one step among many required to revive moribund democracies. However, it will ensure those with the least political voice now have a far greater say in how we are governed in the future, making our democracies more representative, responsive and pluralistic.
The alternative – widening political inequality that entrenches and extends yawning economic and power inequalities – is surely something neither of us want.
We live in a time when the last pretences of elected governments to serve their citizens are falling away. A decade ago, Western democracies invaded Iraq on a fraudulent pretext, deaf to the protests of millions. Today, they push bailouts and austerity on us while dismissing the uproar at those who caused the crisis. Freedom of speech has become the right to be ignored.
Yet it is an error to see this as a weakening of democracy. It is not that the people’s sovereignty has been surrendered to transnationals, or that the arms-and-oil coalition is getting the better of our representatives. The state – every state – has always served the rich and powerful. Far from ‘going off course’, democracies are simply being exposed for the sham they have always been.
Elections are a periodic ritual intended to reinforce the illusion of popular rule. In fact, they only shuffle around the administrators of capitalism. My hunch is that young people are not voting precisely because they are on to this, however viscerally. Talk of youth apathy is misguided – it does not explain why young people volunteer at similar rates to the population average, or their over-representation in activist movements. What we see here is savviness and a healthy cynicism that deserve to be taken seriously.
In this context, requiring people to vote amounts to compelling them to pledge allegiance to a system they distrust. This is not education for civic duty – it is the perpetuation of a lie. Our strategy as egalitarians should be to accentuate the crisis in the system, even as we build alternatives from below – not to help save it from itself.
Real change will require enduring struggle. A politics of ephemeral protest while waiting on systemic apocalypse is not enough; after all, Wall Street is occupied again, but now by organized money, and crisis is usually accompanied by retaliation, not revolution.
‘Who votes matters. Our electorates are getting older and richer, with our politics responding as a result. Non-voters have disproportionately borne the brunt of austerity’ – Mathew
Electoral politics is one such existing avenue of struggle, however imperfect. Using the ballot box does not equate to consenting to the legitimacy of the status quo. The answer is not that we shouldn’t vote, but that not enough do. Social democratic and progressive parties around the world have improved societies far more than those who dogmatically refuse to engage with the present system. Surely we agree there is a world of difference between Syriza and Golden Dawn? There is something deeply conservative and defeatist in not recognizing that, nor the role voting played in Syriza’s eventual victory.
You’re right that the savviness and healthy cynicism of young people is too quickly dismissed as apathy. However, a civil duty to vote in their first election could translate their political energy into enduring pressure for change in the present, and defend better the past gains of collective political action.
Democracy is, of course, about much more than elections or representative government. However, they remain central to it. Given that, it makes sense to ensure those most disenfranchised presently are those most represented in future – and that abstention is replaced by the full mobilization of the people in democratic life.
We do seem to be poles apart, but you could at least avoid straw men and caricatures: nowhere was I arguing for dogmatic abstention from voting, nor do I promote ephemeral protest and waiting as political strategies.
‘Requiring people to vote amounts to compelling them to pledge allegiance to a system they distrust. This is not education for civic duty – it is the perpetuation of a lie’ – Uri
My argument against making voting compulsory does rest on a principled rejection of the state. But this doesn’t mean that I necessarily object to any tactical use of the ballot. Upcoming elections in my native Israel come to mind: some of my anarchist friends will be voting, if merely to strengthen the remains of the opposition against creeping fascism. It may even be possible for an elected leftist government to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism, even if post-War history has shown us that a military coup often follows (and here I genuinely fear for Greece).
But all this is a far cry from the idea that elections should be forced on people, or that they must express their preferences within prescribed channels, whatever other action they take. One of the most positive trends in Western society is the abandoning of the politics of demand towards a far deeper opposition to the very principle of hierarchical governance. Compulsory voting works against that trend. It is not a gateway drug to active citizenship – it is a sleeping pill.
From the occupation of buildings, workplaces and farms to radical co-operatives, local exchange schemes and neighbourhood assemblies, there are hundreds of ways to erode the top-down apparatus that surrounds us, and carve out as much autonomy as we can. To be sure, we will need to defend it from both co-optation and repression. But self-management and mutual aid – not compulsory voting – are our best bet if we want to end capitalism. Do you?
The question at hand is not how to end capitalism – though we clearly disagree about how best to achieve systemic change – but how to strengthen the legitimacy of mass electoral democracy. Compulsory voting will not achieve the former; it might well help revive the latter.
This matters, for who votes matters. Our electorates are getting older and richer, with our politics responding as a result. Entrenched political inequality reinforces wider social and economic hierarchies; for example, non-voters – generally poorer and younger – have disproportionately borne the brunt of austerity.
Compulsory voting is neither a sleeping pill nor a gateway drug. However, it is a mechanism for a slightly more democratic society, where those most marginalized are guaranteed to have their voices heard, electorally at least.
Moreover, the option to vote for ‘none of the above’ would provide people with an opportunity to publicly register a rejection of the status quo.
Hunter S Thompson once said of voting, ‘It ain’t much, but it’s the only weapon we have against the Greedheads.’ He was half-right. As you’ve articulated, there are many, often better, forms of political and social action to reduce hierarchy outside of elections. However, voting remains an expression of political equality – one person, one vote, without distinction – that can help build a fairer society. Given the illegitimate political and economic hierarchies confronting us, a civic duty to vote in your first election is one more, much-needed, weapon for overcoming present inequalities.
‘To strengthen the legitimacy of mass electoral democracy’ – this is precisely where we disagree. This discredited system does not need rescuing; it needs to be abolished.
We may have one person, one vote, but everybody knows that real political influence comes with pounds and dollars. Or is it Swiss francs? Illegitimate hierarchies are dyed into the wool of the state, and the notion of ‘civic duty’ is nothing but that wool being pulled over our eyes.
Emma Goldman is usually credited with saying: ‘If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.’ We can paraphrase: if voting were compulsory, its futility would be guaranteed. Forcing the young and the poor to vote may temporarily amplify their voices, but that would only cause politicians to listen more intently to the one per cent.
Sure, people can spoil their ballots. But isn’t it odd to force them to vote just so they get that opportunity? Millions stay away from the polling booths – that is evidence enough. Let’s find a better story to tell, maybe one about a decentralized society without borders, classes or armies?
Now that’s an option you’ll never get on election day.
This article is from
the April 2015 issue
of New Internationalist.
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