The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have released a report suggesting that young people should be forced to vote in the first election after they turn 18. They rightly point out that, 'the working class and the young have less input into political decision-making processes' in comparison the older and wealthier citizens who have a much higher voter turnout rate. The low turnout rates from young people are keeping them locked in a vicious cycle where they're ignored by politicians, and further disenchanted by politics, therefore less likely to vote in the future. Something fundamental needs to change, and soon.
So is compulsory voting for the young the shake up democracy needs? I think not.
Forced political participation doesn't equal political interest
Australia boasts of its consistently high turn out rates since making voting compulsory, in comparison to low turnout rates in UK, US and Canada. The IPPR suggestion is that if young people are forced to vote, they'll take more of an active interest in politics in order to make an informed decision. A nation of happy, informed, participating citizens. Sounds marvellous no? But how watertight is that argument? Take the Netherlands, for example, who changed from compulsory voting to voluntary voting in 1970s. The voter turnout decreased dramatically. It turned out the political interest was never there, just the desire to avoid a penalty. Forcing somebody to tick a piece of paper does not equate to them taking a genuine interest in politics.
Young people do care. They should be free to express this in ways other than voting.
The annoying myth that 'not voting' equals 'not caring' is simply not true. I work for RECLAIM Project, a charity which works with young people aged 12-15 from working class areas across Greater Manchester. They don't vote, as they are too young. But far from apathetic, our young people are politically angry. From manifestos for change, silent protests in the city centre and their own alternative Christmas speech, they are constantly engaging critically with the world around them. However, when I take them to a hustings event, or encourage them to watch BBC Question Time, their eyes glaze over and they fall silent. It's boring, they don't see themselves represented by any one in the panel (in relation to class, ethnicity and often gender) and they can't understand what the politicians are saying amongst all the well established and alienating political jargon. We shouldn't force them to participate in a system that doesn't accommodate for their needs.
We need to be able to measure both discontent and disinterest in the political system
Making voting compulsory increased voter turnout, thus creating the illusion of a country full of participating, democratic citizens, but this is not a true representation of British society. Some people don't feel adequately represented by any political party, some don't feel informed enough to cast their vote, some refuse to participate in a system they don't believe in, and others simply aren't interested. All are valid reasons to not vote. Of course, compulsory voting is a quick and reliable way to increase voter turnout. But is that the quick fix that society needs? Compulsory voting is just putting a tiny plaster on a festering wound. Our current system is run by a tiny minority of the population, and yet the majority of the general population choose not to participate. The system must adapt, rather than the forcing the public to conform. Civic action should come from a desire for change from within, rather than forced conformity.
The NOTA campaign, led by Rick Edwards is trying to get a 'None Of The Above' box on the ballot paper. I think this is a great idea, and would help measure dissatisfaction - like an official 'spoil' box. But compulsory voting would still be dangerous even in conjunction with NOTA. Would all disinterested young people definitely tick that box? Mightn't they tick the box of the party they see most in the newspaper, or the one they know their parents are ticking - but without any critical thought? Compulsory voting is not only a lazy solution, but a dangerous one...
Forcing ill-informed people to vote makes them easy bait for extremist parties.
I was challenged on this point, and reminded that young people should be able to vote for any party if they so choose. To reiterate, I am all for people voting for whoever they want to see in power, be it Green Party, UKIP or Monster Raving Looney Party: that is the whole idea of democracy. But that choice needs to be informed. At RECLAIM, many of the young people we work with are from families who have been hit disproportionately hard by the cuts of the last government. However, due to the media bias against working class communities, many of the young peoples views are self deprecating when they start the programme. They may be anti-immigration, despite being immigrants themselves, they may be anti-welfare state, despite their family members depending on benefits to survive. When I asked one of the young people why they were anti benefits, they cited 'Benefit Street' for showing them that claimants were 'lazy fraudsters'. It took a whole separate session to debunk the myths around benefit fraud for the group to think critically about the issue. If those views displayed by 13 years olds had gone unchallenged until voting age, in which they had been forced to vote, they would have likely voted for a party that systematically discriminates against them.
It is often said, 'without a vote, you don't have a voice'. But I prefer the quote: 'Knowledge is power'. I say no to compulsory voting, but yes to critical thinking in schools, from primary schools upwards, citizenship classes being brought back into the curriculum, which prepare and excite young people to engage in democracy. Let's engage our young people, let's challenge them, let's excite them, let's hear them - all year round, not just in the run up to elections. Let's give them authentic platforms to be seen, to be heard and lead social change. 'Your vote is your voice' is the message being told to our young people. But they already have a voice, we just need to start listening.