This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?
The problem is easy to state, but tricky to solve. Turnout in elections and referendums is often so low that the legitimacy of the result becomes open to question. When the United Kingdom voted three years ago to leave the European Union, Brexit was backed by 52% of those who voted – but just 37% of the total electorate. Should a major constitutional change be waved through without the explicit approval of almost two thirds of us?
Now consider the last general election to have produced a majority government. In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservatives secured an overall majority of 12 with the support of 37% of all voters – and just 25% of all electors. A combination of low turnout and our first-past-the-post system for electing MPs meant that three quarters of us were ruled by a party for which we had not voted.
The arguments about our voting system are discussed elsewhere in this series. So my concern here is the issue of turnout. How can we persuade more people to vote, and therefore to imbue the result of any electoral contest with greater legitimacy?
The most obvious answer is to make voting compulsory. Just as jury service is an obligation that we have as citizens if we are summoned to do it, so voting in elections and referendums could be considered a similar compulsion. This is the case in about 20 countries – the precise number depends upon how one classifies countries where compulsion in theory is seldom enforced in practice.
The case for compulsion is clear. It is not just that turnout would rise sharply, though it would. Going by the experiences of countries that have already introduced compulsory voting, it would rise from less than 70% in each of the last five UK general elections, up to something like 85-90%. (It is never 100 per cent: the electoral register is not perfect; electors die, fall ill, face family crises, are stranded away from home, or have some other legitimate reason for not voting; and some people are happy to risk the modest fine that might, or might not, be levied on non-voters.)
There is, though, more to the case for voting compulsion in Britain. Parties these days are more anxious to be generous to older folk such as myself – because we vote – than to young adults, because they are more likely to abstain. Poorer families living in bad housing with lousy local schools would get more attention and public money if they voted in similar numbers to comfortable middle-class home-owners.
More generally, a higher turnout would incentivise parties to campaign with more integrity. Elections today are largely cynical, mechanical exercises in mobilising each party’s base – aimed at firing voters up to make sure they vote rather than discussions on the country’s future in any meaningful sense of the word. If millions more people were certain to vote but were not sure how to go forward, the pressure on parties would be to devote their energies more to political conversion, which would require at least some element of proper, authentic, debate.
Against all this there exists one powerful argument that cannot be ignored. We live in a free country, and many would argue that the freedom not to vote should command as much respect as any other freedom does. True, people in compulsory-voting countries can spoil their ballot paper: the law dictates that they turn up to vote, not that they mark their ballot paper in an approved way (or, indeed, at all). But if someone wants to stay at home rather than trek to a polling station, should they not have the freedom to do so without breaking the law and incurring a fine?
All of which leads me to my proposal to square this particular circle – to secure the benefits of compulsory voting but without the compulsion. I propose inverting the financial incentive inherent in compulsory-voting countries. Instead of fining people for not voting, provide them with a cash incentive to play an active part in their democracy. The financial “cost” of not voting would be the same, but it would be a foregone payment for exercising the right not to vote, not a penalty imposed by the state for breaking the law.
Let’s put some numbers to this. A £10 voucher would be roughly the equivalent to the penalty for not voting in Australia (it is AUD$20 for first-time non-voters). Assuming a turnout of 90% in a UK general election, that would represent a cost of slightly more than £400 million to the British government. It would be a relatively modest outlay to improve our democracy – an increase of well below 0.1% in government spending in general election years.
However, there is a good chance that even this outlay could be reduced, even eliminated. Here’s how. Invite big companies to fund the vouchers – say Tesco, Lidl, Boots, Marks & Spencer, Amazon, and BP (for use at their filling stations). Given the beneficial publicity that companies could attract for participating in the scheme, it might even make the government a profit. For example, it could be granted to one company in each sector through an auction. Tesco might compete with Sainsbury’s, Boots with Superdrug, BP with Shell and so on. Given that many people going into a retailer to spend their voucher will spend a lot more, the true cost to each company will be far less than the initial outlay of £10 per person.
The process of issuing the vouchers would be relatively simple. Each ballot paper would have a tear-off voucher attached. After casting their vote, each voter would write their name on the voucher. The retailer could, if they wished, verify the identity of the voucher-holder. In any event, by restricting the use of the voucher to one per transaction, it should be fairly easy to minimise misuse.
One further possibility would be to allow vouchers to be donated to a charity. This part of the cost would be borne by the government, unless a major bank, or consortium of financial businesses, stumped up, again in return for the public-spirited publicity they would receive.
These details are not designed to be prescriptive, but to illustrate some of the possibilities that would open up if we used our imaginations and recognised that the practical benefits of such a solution would far outweigh the drawbacks that could offend purists. Once we agreed that this was worth exploring, a host of detailed options could be investigated.
Let us address one likely criticism head-on. We shall be told that this would be a bribe, and that bribery has no place in a democracy. To which my response is this: what on earth are election campaigns all about anyway, if not a proffering of competing bribes in the form of promised policies?
There is a more principled answer. Many people, especially among the less well-off sections of the electorate, abstain from voting because they perceive little benefit to them. Whether you call my idea a payment, incentive, compensation or bribe, the result of this reform would be to encourage millions more of our fellow citizens to engage in our political process, taking more interest in the choices placed before them.
These citizens would, to a large extent, be those who most needed our politicians to enact laws, levy taxes and direct public spending in ways that reduced inequality and increased social harmony. At stake is not merely the legitimacy of our election and our referendum outcomes, but also the quality of the decisions that flow from those outcomes. It could deliver a more meaningful future for those with the least prospect of one.
Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?