Australia goes to the polls this weekend to choose between two unpopular candidates: the incumbent, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd has a net approval rating of -9 (representing approval rating minus disapproval) while his rival, Coalition leader Tony Abbott’s approval rating is only marginally better at -5.
Despite the relative unpopularity of both options for the top job, Australia is expecting a high turnout - 94% voted in the 2010 election compared to only 65% in the UK election of the same year. Why? Because it is compulsory to vote in Australia.
In Britain it isn’t - and as a result people are turned off civic participation at an early age - it is well established that young people are less likely to take part in elections than older members of the electorate. Between 1970 and 2010 the percentage point difference between turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds and those over 65 has increased from 18% to 32% in the UK. At the 2010 election those numbers played out like this: 76% of the over-65s voted while only 44% of the 18-24s cast a ballot paper.
And these differential turnout rates matter - they have considerable implications for policy outputs. A report to be published next month by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Divided Democracy: Political Inequality in the UK, suggests that the recent round of spending cuts has resulted in an average loss of services equivalent to 28% of the annual household income for those between the ages of 16 and 24, but only 10% for those aged 55 to 74.
Think the triple lock on pension increasess compared to the ever-rising cost of university fees. Young people are getting short-changed by governments of all complexions, and that is because politicians have scant incentive to listen to them.
The result is a vicious cycle whereby politicians neglect the concerns of young people because they know they are less likely to vote than their elders, and young people – correctly – perceive that politicians are not speaking to their concerns. These two reinforcing processes combine to generate a spiral of disengagement.
Recent developments suggest that the problem is only going to get worse. Political parties have become considerably more adept at targeting voters with their communications. Not surprisingly, they tend to target groups that are most likely to vote and to neglect those known to shun the ballot box.
Young people, for their part, have a greater range of – largely digital – pastimes to occupy them. In comparison to Facebook, computer games, and the drama of reality TV, traipsing to a shabby community hall to tick a box with a pencil must seem quite old-fashioned and remote.
So what is to be done? The most common response is to suggest that politicians “should” engage more with young people. But exhortations to politicians to change their behaviour are idealistic and out of touch with political reality. If politicians are to change, they need a reason to change.
Bold action needed
Given the severity of the problem, the only viable solution is to take bold action to break the vicious cycle of disengagement by requiring first-time electors to attend a polling station and cast a ballot.
First-time compulsory voting can be expected to have two distinct consequences. First, it will give politicians a reason to engage with younger voters. By boosting the collective voice of young people, this reform would make all parties more attentive to their concerns.
Second, our research suggests that requiring voters to vote the first time they are eligible will go some way toward making voting habitual.
The idea that most non-voters are too alienated by politics to go to the polls is only partially true. Decades of research on electoral participation tell us that the reasons are more complex. People forget; people can’t be bothered to find out where the polling station is or when it is open - or voting simply isn’t seen as something they can connect with. Such cultural and lifestyle reasons account for far more voter abstention than active dislike of politicians.
These “lifestyle non-voters” might well be inclined to vote if they were nudged into voting at least once. And there is considerable evidence that if people vote at the start of their careers as citizens, they are more likely to carry on voting.
There are thus two good reasons for requiring young people to attend a polling station once in their lives: to pressure politicians into engaging with them and to help make voting habitual.
So what about the objections to this proposal? By far the most common concern is that if people are compelled to do something, they will resent it and that first-time compulsory voting may thus be counter-productive.
Yet there are a wide variety of things that people are compelled to do, and once they get used to the idea, they often accept such constraints. These include compulsory education, taxation, jury service, completion of the census, and voter registration. Like jury service and voter registration, voting for the first time would be a civic duty. And a not very onerous one at that.
Another frequent objection is that is unfair to oblige anyone to choose from a list of options if they do not genuinely like any of what is on offer. It is for this reason that a “none of the above” box should be added to the ballot, so people would have the option of sending a clear message to the political elite that they do not find the policies of any party attractive.
A third common objection is that compulsory first-time voting would be difficult to enforce. Yet approximately a quarter of all democracies, including - as already mentioned - Australia and Belgium, have systems of compulsory voting, many of which are effectively enforced by means of small fines.
The comparative evidence suggests also that countries with compulsory voting have higher levels of satisfaction with democracy as well as higher levels of non-electoral participation.
Requiring people to vote once in their life is not a big ask, but it could potentially have far-reaching consequences both for policy delivery and political engagement.