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Don’t Make Box-Ticking Mandatory

A rain-soaked polling station sign
A rain-soaked polling station sign • Photograph: worldoflard / Flickr

The Institute for Public Policy Research has recommended that voting is made compulsory for first-time voters, but they have seriously overlooked the point of voting.

The UK is most certainly experiencing a democratic deficit, from low voter turnouts, distrust in politicians and a lack of everyday political engagement and, therefore, it is a problem that must be addressed.

As the body that seeks to promote democratic participation, the institute reports that compelling first-time voters to place their ballot would have a wide range of benefits, ranging from forging a life-long habit of voting to ensuring that political parties pay more attention to the young vote. The options on the ballot would include each candidate in the area and an option to not place a ballot.

However, the proposal by the thinktank seriously undermines one of the core concepts of a democracy – choice. Although the thinktank provides an option for young people to place their vote, the idea that they must attend the ballot station and tick a box, or face a fine, is completely at odds with the definition of a democracy. And even if this policy were implemented, you may as well go the full mile and extend the compulsion to all members of the electorate; everyone has views after all.

To compel young people to vote would be to create a false politics, with an inaccurate measurement of political participation. What the thinktank does understand well is the need for politics to appeal to young people and that is the approach that should be taken. It’s been said over and over again that political parties need to speak to young people, perhaps even before they begin to vote, rather than just wait for when they have the power to make a difference. But as young people live their lives so differently to the majority of the electorate, with different living, employment and financial arrangements, the majority of political decisions lay in relation to a future not yet completely comprehended by many young people. Issues such as tuition fees, the Educational Maintenance Allowance and same-sex marriage can appeal to young people, whereas others such as pension reform and care home standards bear no relevance yet.

A mixture of a lower age of participation and better political education will do a far better job at increasing political participation than this proposal. Allowing people to engage at an earlier age can create a habit as much as compelling them to do so. But this will only work if politicians make politics relevant and exciting to young people, making them understand that decisions made now can have an effect on their later life even at such an early stage. And it also relies largely on their close family and friends who may display complete dissatisfaction with politics – older members of families in particular may pass on negative views about the political system to the younger generation and their lack of a habit to vote may make voting seem an abnormal or worthless thing to do.

Furthermore, it’s no question of a doubt that the majority of the things we are forced to do are the least enjoyable. Why add politics to that mix? Politics should not be something that people are made to do, but something that people want to do. Forcing people to vote is more likely to push people away from politics, than be a ‘nudge in the right direction’. A democracy is about consensual participation, not mandatory box-ticking once a year.

You can show your opinion in a poll at the Guardian, but that’s your choice.

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