Should we incentivise people to vote?

December 2, 2012 3:20 pm

Turnout  in the recent PCC elections averaged around 15% and for the last six by-elections has averaged under 29%, (for Manchester Central it was just 18%). At the last General Election, twice as many people boycotted the democratic process as voted for the principal party now in Government –  80% of the electorate did not vote for this Tory-led Government which is making major changes to the welfare state everybody relies on.

This is a long-running problem. Turnout in General Elections has fallen from a peak of 84% in 1950, to a low of 59% in 2001. And, crucially for the Labour Party, this fall has not been evenly spread. The latest “Audit of Political Engagement” shows that voters from  AB social groups are still 65% certain to vote, whilst the other groups average only 45%. In effect, in 2012, the majority of voters on average and below average incomes  are choosing to disenfranchise themselves. Politicians of all parties have responded to this problem simply by focussing  on the priorities of those who do still vote, leaving those who don’t unrepresented.

As the Labour Party’s founding purpose was to provide a political voice for those unable to buy one,  shouldn’t we grasp this nettle? Australia and nine other countries have enforced compulsory voting and whilst it would be a long drawn out process to implement that here,  it would be a fairly simple matter to put in place a voter turnout incentive.

A “Democracy Premium Bond” could be set up, whereby a Voter ID number is drawn at each count from amongst those who’d contributed to a healthy democracy by going out to vote. Of course there are potential pitfalls, but for these there seem to be fairly simple solutions:-

1)     Those who  find the idea morally repugnant could, of course, be exempted from the draw.

2)     Irresponsible voting from those who turn up at the polling station just to be included in the draw. My own view is that most people, knowing  they are definitely  going to vote, would be more aware of the political campaigns and would vote responsibly when it came to it. It takes as much effort to spoil a ballot paper as to vote. The extent of this problem could be assessed in a trial before a national rollout.

3)     Extremist parties targeting  those who are not politically engaged but go to vote because there is an incentive. This is the same argument which was used against giving non-property owners and women the vote. Any political party which cannot communicate the benefits of its philosophy compared to extremism has a problem not related to turnout.

If a draw was held in each ward, with a prize of £1,000, this would add around £10million to the £80million cost of a General Election. Not peanuts, but possibly a price worth paying to re-engage 40% of the electorate?

  • David Talbot

    Most strange.

    My start and end point with the issue of incentivising, or compulsory, voting has always been that it is totally undemocratic to induce or force people to vote. We will no longer have ‘free’ elections if we are not free to choose to boycott elections. It’s a basic democratic right to decide not to vote, that’s a right I feel that is almost as important as voting. Not voting is a big a statement as voting, just look at the PCC turnouts which are referenced above.

    People won’t vote for the sake of maybe winning a ‘Democracy Bond’ any more than millions don’t play the lottery because they’ll never win. Such an idea would cheapen the democratic process in my view, and let the political parties off the hook in terms of the real problem of voter engagement.

    • Adam Neumann

      A compulsory voting system would more adequately illustrate discontent, (in the form of spoilt papers, or perhaps an option for no confidence) that would be irrefutable evidence of failure of representation, in an undeniable manifestation, rather than through survey garnered statistic that can be disputed.
      Also it would bring the esteem of democracy to the fore, and espouse the respect toward those who have essentially died in its service. It could be attempted at least.

      But i disagree with the incentive through monetisation, it seems a form that would serve only as an inadequate compromise between the two, though perhaps a solution lies in this middle ground; ultimately I find this form of coercion insidious at its heart, at least a compulsory system would be entirely transparent in its requirements.

  • AlanGiles


    • robertcp

      I agree that Ann’s comment is guff. The turnout was 65% and the coalition parties got 59% of the vote between them, so I don’t know where she got 80% not voting for government from. Lots of people might regret voting for the Lib Dems but I regretted voting Labour quite often after 1997.

      Regarding the suggestion, I think it is verging on corruption and compulsory voting makes me uncomfortable. We need to consider why less people are voting rather than bribing or forcing them to vote. Turnout fell gradually from the 1950s to the 1990s but it collapsed in 2001. This was probably due to the result not being in doubt and New Labour alienating people on the left. Let’s hope that a close election in 2015 with a left of centre Labour Party will increase the turnout.

      Of course, the elephant in the room on turnout is the first past the post voting system.

    • AlanGiles

      As I write 2100 2/12, the oily Liam Byrne is appearing on BBC Radio 4 mithering on again about his “something for something” culture – well, I say HIS, but it is just another witless expression he has filched from his predecessor Purnell.

      You were saying, Ms. Courtney?

      • Serbitar

        Byrne represents a low water mark for the Labour Party. He really is abysmal. I recently heard him pushing his pet “regional benefits” gimmick saying that the idea ought to be developed independently by experts and so on and so forth. So the plan appears to be to pick one or more “experts”, like Blair did with David Freud, guaranteed to produce a report that will recommend the outcome you desire, hold your hands up claiming that said plan had been developed independently, is the best thing sliced bread, and that you’re going to implement it because it was arrived at in an unbiased and apolitical manner! Ta-da. You get what you originally wanted (and sometimes even more) without having to shoulder the blame for the pain and misery it causes to others because you were following expert recommendations rather than carrying out your own designs.

        How Labour could have sunk this low remains an open question.

  • Mike Homfray

    Some countries do have compulsory voting, but there is the option to vote for ‘none of the above’

  • Dave Postles

    ‘Politicians of all parties have responded to this problem simply by
    focussing on the priorities of those who do still vote, leaving those
    who don’t unrepresented.’
    Well, isn’t that an indictment of the Labour Party then?

  • Dave Postles

    Apparently my postings are still subject to moderation although I changed my e-mail address, from googlemail (sad mistake) to my own server some weeks ago. Some are allowed through and others never appear. I mention this point here in case some responses have seemed rather late and might be construed as avoiding discussion.

  • Elliot Bidgood

    While I welcome constructive debate over how to combat voter disengagement, I can’t say I like this approach. It would be a lot of public money and I can’t help but feel it would cheapen the democratic process. Political and civic participation should be their own reward. As far as I’m concerned there’s already a pretty big incentive/carrot for voting in terms of perhaps getting politicians and policies that service you, and a disincentive/stick not to in perhaps getting policies that harm you. “Decisions are made by those who show up”. It’s about getting people to see that again, although I’m not going to claim I have any grand ideas about how to go about that. There are clearly no quick fixes, except perhaps compulsory voting as you mentioned – I’m not in principle against, provided there is a “none of the above” option to ensure non-voters retain freedom of expression, although it is an extreme last resort.

  • Daniel Speight

    Combining wanting to get more people voting with getting more people voting Labour, the answer maybe making Labour the moral crusade it once was. Forget the focus groups and triangulation. Not everyone can be Blair’s heir, and Cameron and Clegg have already claimed that spot. Stop trying to saddle the centre point. Start giving the citizens of this country something to be enthused about.

  • franwhi

    We could have reformed the voting system but we didn’t. We could have beefed up local democracy but we didn’t. We could have inaugarated citizens forums but we didn’t. We could have offered voters in devolved Scotland a chance to vote for more powers but we didn’t. Every approach to lessening the democratic deficit of millions of voters, disengaged voters and regional voters in the UK always runs into the sand because of vested party interests and the self-interest of many politicians. Wake up Ann – career politicians may not see voter apathy as the problem but rather as part of the solution which ensures the power gap remains exactly as it is as seats go on returning the same candidate interminably on a small turnout of loyalists. Even worse – there is a horrible trend notably in Labour of seats being ‘gifted’ to the sons and daughters of retiring members. Someone should really do some cross party research on this type of family patronage. I fear that big concepts like democracy, voter participation and political empowerment face the sheer intransigence of a political elite who need and will try to preserve by all means, the status quo.

  • markfergusonuk

    Moderation is dependent on the time I have to moderate them Dave – nothing more

  • brianbarder

    I think there’s a strong case for making voting compulsory. Voting is as much a civic duty as paying one’s taxes or putting one’s litter in the bin. Compulsory voting in Australia works very well (I don’t think the ballot papers there actually include a ‘none of the above’ box to put an X in but it’s always open to anyone to spoil her or his ballot paper, as others have pointed out). The idea of entering all voters in a draw for a Premium Bond to encourage more people to vote is ingenious but slightly distasteful, whereas compulsion would seem fully appropriate — to me, anyway!

    The question of what percentage of the electorate voted for the present government, although not directly relevant to the issue of what to do about low turnout at election times, is an easy one: the answer is zero, since no-one had the option of voting for a Tory-LibDem coalition government, nor for its programme (which was negotiated in secret only after the election).

    Moreover it’s almost meaningless to say that some large majority of those voting voted against any particular party, since no party has won as much as 50% of the votes at a general election since the 1930s, and with the current growth of sizeable votes for fringe parties (UKIP, Respect, the Greens, etc.) and for the nationalists in three of the four UK nations, the percentages won by any of the three biggest parties, whichever they are after the next election, are likely to continue to shrink. Under our electoral system the party winning more votes than any other in each constituency is entitled to be awarded the seat, and the party (if any) with a majority of the seats in the house of commons is the winner of the election with a mandate to govern. That principle is made much more acceptable, and the elected government is perceived as much more legitimate, if turnout is reasonably high. Compulsory voting is much the simplest way to ensure a higher turnout.

  • Serbitar

    I suggest offering electors Nectar points if and whenever they cast their vote.

  • Monkey_Bach

    There is one sure-fire way to incentivise people to vote and that is to convince them that their vote can make a difference and that there is a real difference between the choices available to them on the ballot paper: the only real way to do this is to populate political parties with honest, compassionate, and competent politicians capable of inspiring confidence in members of the electorate at large. While inept poisonous dross like Yvette Cooper and Liam Byrne remain at the zenith of the Labour Party, Labour will always have a problem as far as morally unambiguous electors are concerned. Eeek.

    (Incidentally, though a majority of people consider, quite rightly, that Liam Byrne is a monkey’s uncle I hasten to declare that he’s no relative of mine! Monkey I may be through and through but I’m not that far beneath the beasts! Eeek.)

  • MonkeyBot5000

    This might seem like a bit of an outlandish suggestion for attracting voters, but has anyone considered the possibility of offering policies people want and then actually carrying them out once in power?

    Here is a prime example of why people aren’t turning out to vote:

    “1) Those who find the idea morally repugnant could, of course, be exempted from the draw.”

    Translation: if there’s a problem with our idea, we can just ignore it and it’ll go away.

    • dave stone

      “offering policies people want”

      You’re right, that’s far too outlandish for the Labour Party. Don’t forget, Labour’s credibility is presented as being dependent upon a willingness, if returned to office, to make “difficult decisions” – i.e. enacting policies no one voted for.


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