Age, Civic Participation, EU Referendum, Politics, Young People

An analysis of the effect of compulsory voting on youth political apathy

VotingRecent findings by WISERD have found that Millennials are the most politically disinterested generation in the history of British survey research. WISERD research examining youth political engagement in Wales has found that while young people exhibit unremarkable levels of the attitudes most commonly associated with political alienation, they demonstrate a noticeably high level of apathy towards politics. While many have assumed that low youth engagement with politics stems from feelings of alienation based on mistrust of the political system, the key explanation of this phenomenon appears to simply be a lack of interest in political issues. As well as historically low turnout at elections (even when compared to previous generations at the same age), young voters today were found to be less likely to sign petitions and protest about political issues than previous generations. These findings require us to revaluate the often suggested cures for low youth engagement with politics such as votes at 16, creating youth parliaments or introducing online voting. We must assess solutions for their potential to boost interest in, and awareness of, political issues among young people.

With voting in elections considered the primary method of participating in politics in democratic societies, many have argued that Britain should follow the lead of many other countries by introducing compulsory voting at elections. Compulsory voting (though commonly accompanied with several exemptions) is argued to increase turnout and therefore the popular legitimacy of governments, ensure groups that are less likely to vote such as young people and low income groups are not ignored by politicians or disproportionally harmed by public policy, to lead to a more positive politics based not on depressing the turnout of opponents but on reaching out to all electors and to substantially increasing political engagement in society. Those opposed to compulsory voting have argued that individuals have a right to abstain from voting, that an unequal distribution of policy costs and benefits among groups in society is commonly accepted in democracies through altruistic voting, that voting is not always in an individual’s self-interest and that there are more effective ways to engage in democracy.

In light of WISERD’s findings attention must focus on the extent to which compulsory voting would make young people more interested in political issues and better engaged with the political system. Those sceptical of compulsory voting often contend that while it may increase turnout among groups such as young people who are currently less likely to vote, their increased participation will be meaningless as they will vote only because they are compelled to without an accompanying increase in political interest or knowledge. Indeed, the 2004 Youth Electoral Study of Australia (a country where voting is compulsory) found that political disengagement among young Australians had increased in recent years and that this trend may be masked somewhat by the high turnout rates resulting from compulsory voting. Addressing this criticism it is important to note that, even if we accept their underlying assumptions, such critics ignore the many benefits that would accrue to young people from compulsory voting. Quite simply, higher turnout will benefit young people. If politicians realised young people would now be voting in significantly larger numbers they could no longer afford to ignore their concerns. Therefore, while an element of compulsion is placed upon the voter it is clear compulsion is extended to the politician as well as they would now be forced to address the issues young people care about in order to earn their vote. The Australian political scientist Professor Lisa Hill believes compulsory voting tackles the underlying causes of apathy (disinterest) as well as its symptoms (low turnout) and achieves better policy outcomes for young people.

Intuitively, there are strong reasons to assume that compulsory voting would at least make many more young people interested in politics. While commonly referred to as compulsory voting in most cases it is better understood as compulsory attendance at a polling station on election day as electors not required to cast a valid vote once there. Attendance at a polling station provides an opportunity for participation that few could object to, normalises the act of voting for all young people and will cause many to take an interest in the political issues of that election. As Annabelle Lever argues, compulsory voting challenges citizens to be politically informed. Those who remained stubbornly disinterested in politics would most likely choose not to cast a vote (disproving fears of uninterested young voters deciding elections) and those that wished to register a political protest could vote for the “none of the above” option that is common in compulsory voting systems.

Encouragingly the example of Australia, which has had compulsory voting in federal elections since 1924, and for the sake of effective comparative analysis has a parliamentary system similar to our own, suggests compulsory voting has helped young people to take a greater interest in political issues.

After comparing voters in the US (where voting is optional and turnout is often low) and Australia, Dr Peter Tucker finds Australian voters are more interested in politics than American voters. His examination of the effects of compulsory voting found that Australian elections are characterised by higher levels of citizen engagement with politics and higher public awareness of policy options. Additionally, Professor Lisa Hill has explained that compulsory voting has led to young Australians growing up appreciating voting as a social obligation. Multi-country research provides further evidence that compulsory voting helps to boost interest in politics. The Electoral Commission has concluded that while more effective means to increasing political knowledge exist (such as political education in schools), international evidence suggests compulsory voting has a small but positive affect on levels of political interest among voters.

Interestingly an idea that has grown in prominence in Britain in recent years is that of requiring young people to attend a polling station during the first election they are eligible for. Mark Franklin’s 2004 research found that if people vote in the first election for which they are eligible they are more likely to vote in subsequent elections, kick-starting a lifelong habit of voting. This research provides further support to the case of introducing a small element of compulsion into the electoral system, though I believe considerations of political equality across all societal groups should lead us to push for compulsory voting across the board. Unlike other suggested democratic reforms such as online voting, voting at weekends or votes at 16, compulsory voting results in an immediate and substantial increase in turnout, political equality, democratic legitimacy and will, the evidence suggests, increase the level of political interest among the public.

After examining many of the problems facing modern democracies I believe that there is a compelling case for introducing compulsory voting. Considerations of political equality, legitimacy of decisions and political culture all point towards an element of compulsion in the electoral process being well worth the small obligation it places upon people. Addressing WISERD’s findings directly, it does appear that compulsory voting will help to address the problem of political apathy among young people. WISERD’s research found that young people in Wales were engaged to an unprecedented extent with the issues in the EU referendum. It is likely that an inevitably high-profile, nationwide discussion about compulsory voting and youth political apathy will in itself spur the interest of many young people in politics as they consider their role as democratic citizens. A serious, substantial debate in Britain about compulsory voting is long overdue.


Jake Smith is a postgraduate student at the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University. Jake can be contacted via email: SmithJR2@cardiff.ac.uk or on Twitter: @JakeSmith137

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