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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Getting the vote out

Peter Hain steps into the fray once more today by repeating his well-known views on constitutional reform. Voting at 16 and a fully elected House of Lords are all reforms I can happily sign up to, but I am more cautious on the idea of compulsory voting. I do not see what benefits it will bring that can compensate for the loss of freedom of choice.

The Western Mail comment column also has reservations. They point out that people don't vote for a whole variety of reasons but that those reasons are a matter for them. Choosing to opt out of the democratic system is a valid choice, even if we might wish that fewer people would do it. They ask what the value is in having a third of voters marking 'none-of-the-above' on their ballot paper and return to the rather tired old suggestion that using new technology to make it easier for people to vote would lead to an increased turn-out.

My view is that people do not vote because they do not believe that it changes anything. It stands to reason that if we are to tackle that trend then the politicians themselves need to act to ensure that voters have a real choice and that the outcome of an election reflects the way that people have voted. We have to make politics relevant again and rebuild trust in the process before we can expect people to reciprocate with their participation.

That is not going to be easy. It is certainly not available as a quick fix in the same way as compulsory voting or easier access to ballot papers and nor should it be. Part of the answer is in the introduction of the single transferable vote system, so as to better empower individual candidates and to do away with safe seats and rotten boroughs, but the real work lies in our contact with ordinary voters and the painstaking task of engaging them in what we do and in the way that the Country and their local Council is run.
If politicians resort to advocating compulsory voting it means they've failed in their responsibility as elected representatives.

On voting at 16 - it makes no sense tinkering with just one aspect of 'coming of age' legislation. Make one age for everything and agree on it. If it can't be 16 for alcohol it shouldn't be 16 for voting.
Compulsory voting doesn't resolve the problem of disengagement, it just hides the problem.
On compulsory voting both of these points reflect what I have written. I agree with Ciaran on equalising the age of responsibility at 16.
Compulsory voting also makes staying in power easier - the opposition has to effectively tell those who voted for the current government they were wrong. People don't like that.
In a non-compulsory voting regime, you have the added dimension of persuading those who stay home to come out and vote which can be an easier task (especially those who would have voted for you but protested by staying home).
Whilst I find myself compelled to agree with Peter Hain, MP for Neath, regarding the reduction of the voting age to 16 from 18, I cannot agree with the assertion that people should be compelled to vote.

Reducing the voting age to 16.

I feel that I must agree with this proposition, if only, for the two simple reasons highlighted below:

1. Those school leavers at the age of 16 are expected to work and pay taxes yet they have no voice in how those taxes are spent. (Thus contributing to, and causing voter apathy)

2. The hypocrisy of accepting that at the age of 16 a person can make a rational choice to join the Armed Forces and may, in times of crisis, find him/herself on the frontline fighting for the very democracy that won’t allow him/her to have a voice in.

Compulsory Voting.

There is but one overriding reason why I cannot bring myself to agree with compulsory voting. The main reason is that as an advocate of Democracy, I believe in the freedom to choose. A freedom that respects peoples choice, not just who they are going to vote for but, of whether they are going to vote or not.

Many times I have heard the argument:

“Hundreds of thousands of people have sacrificed their lives, in the past, to ensure that
we have the right to vote!”

I would like to think that they sacrificed their lives to ensure that we have the freedom to choose whether we vote or not. That is true democracy – the freedom to choose. If people choose not to vote then that is their democratic right to choose that. The way I see it is that democracy is all about the freedom of choice, and that extends to the freedom to choose whether you wish to vote – or not.

Richie Northcote
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