April 29, 2015 2 Comments
The last three General Elections have seen a rise in non-voting. There are many reasons for abstention, and the figures do not include those who do not register, but amongst the most common excuse is the perception that votes do not count.
Firstly, I should make a very obvious point – one individual vote almost never decides an election. Voting is a collective activity.
I am an electoral reformer, and therefore it would be very easy for me to suggest that voter engagement is linked to an unfair electoral system. However, my objections to first past the post have nothing to do with turnout, and everything to do with creating a modern democracy that is adapted to pluralistic politics.
There are many reasons for not voting, and accessibility is one of them. However, it is also true that politicians are held in low esteem. Some of this will be down to some frankly stupid actions by politicians, but the media has had a large part to play too. Whilst I recognise that bad news sells better than good, the constant drip, drip, drip, of horror stories must contribute to the distrust of those seeking public office.
I am not about to suggest that our media change how they report things – if nothing else a free press is one of the guarantors of democracy. I am just seeking reasons why fewer are voting nowadays.
Regardless of the merits of proportional voting methods, I would hope that many would agree that we can modernise our democracy. One simple step would be to start using online voting, another would be to experiment with a different voting day; Thursdays are working days for most people, so why not try voting at weekends?
Is it ironic that the most recent national election where there was a choice of two produced the greatest turnout? I refer to the Scottish independence referendum. A simple choice, a good level of voter engagement. Has the increase in choice caused apathy? Is pluralist politics depressing engagement? Are the simple choices gone, because you do get some who label us as all the same – an argument that could be interpreted in a number of ways, including that increased choice has made making that choice more difficult.
There are arguments for compulsory voting, although I am yet to be convinced about this. Freedom of choice and compulsion are odd bedfellows. I do think that we should do more to encourage voting, and happen to believe that voting at sixteen will help. This has to be tied to curriculum changes to accommodate an emphasis on how our democracy works and why voting matters.
These statistics illustrate the rise of non-voters. It also shows a rise in support for parties other than the big two, which for the first time in 2010 surpassed the ten million mark as well as out-stripping the second-placed party. Whether this is reflection on the numbers of candidates (the bar is very low for participation in election these days) as opposed to an indicator of support leaking from Labour and the Conservatives I am not sure. I suspect that there is no simple or single answer to this, much like voter engagement and participation.
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