Low turnout undermines democracy: should we be forced to vote?

RDS Count Centre for the European elections in June elections – barely half of us (51.6 per cent) bothered to vote, down from 57.6 per cent in the 2009 European elections. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

RDS Count Centre for the European elections in June elections – barely half of us (51.6 per cent) bothered to vote, down from 57.6 per cent in the 2009 European elections. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


In the May European Parliament elections barely half of us (51.6 per cent) bothered to vote, down from 57.6 per cent in the 2009 European elections. This was actually a high vote compared to our neighbours: we had the seventh highest level of voter turnout among the EU member states. Bottom of the pack was Slovakia where just one in 10 voted (13 per cent).

We can expect turnout to be lower in European elections due to their “second-order” status. But even in the most important national elections we are witnessing a spiralling decline in voter turnout. Across most of the world’s democracies, Ireland included, voters are voting with their feet by staying away from the polling stations.

In the 1960s three-quarters of those eligible to vote in Irish elections did so; 50 years later that proportion has dropped to two-thirds. These Irish trends are matched by similar declines among most of the other established democracies; indeed, we pale in comparison to Switzerland where barely a third of their electorate bothers to vote.

That growing numbers of us abstain in elections matters; it can distort election outcomes. This point is summed up well by one of the slogans of the US-based Rock the Vote campaign: “Bad politicians are elected by good people who don’t vote.” Recent examples are provided by the French National Front and United Kingdom Independence Party who topped the polls in France (turnout 43 per cent) and the UK (turnout 34 per cent) respectively in last May’s European elections.

‘Grey vote’

Not voting also matters for those who don’t vote. The eminent American political scientist, Walter Dean Burnham, puts it succinctly: “If you don’t vote you don’t count.” This becomes particularly acute when the lack of turnout is concentrated on certain sectors in society, such as among our young and those less well off. In the former instance there is a dangerous generational effect: with each successive generation fewer and fewer young citizens vote, a key contributor to the decline in voter turnout overall. No surprise therefore why politicians tend to focus their policy concerns on issues that matter to the “grey vote”.

Similar policy distortions result from the differing turnout tendencies of the rich and the poor. An unfortunate inequality spiral can develop along the following lines: rising inequality results in socio-economically biased turnout, determining who gets elected and the content of their policies, producing less pressure on politicians to address inequality, resulting in rising inequality.

State of democracy

Declining turnout matters for democracy more generally. After all, the defining feature of representative democracy is the right of citizens to choose between competing parties in elections. As fewer of us take the trouble to make this choice then over time it calls into question the state of democracy itself, a point stressed by the late Peter Mair, who warned of democracies being “hollowed out” as increasing numbers of citizens desert the electoral arena.

What can be done about this? The first and most important thing is for politicians to recognise the problem and take ownership of it, not to sweep it under the carpet. There are practical steps that could be taken, four of which merit serious consideration.

First, the Government should establish an electoral commission, something that has been promised by successive governments this one included – a promise reiterated in the Government’s recent statement of priorities. It should get on with it without delay. Electoral commissions are becoming the norm across most of the world’s democracies: it’s time we had one here.

Electoral commissions can play an important role in promoting voter turnout drives and making the whole voting process as easy as possible – which is where I get to my next recommendation. The first act of the new electoral commission should be to regularise Ireland’s outdated voter registration system and to streamline the process by which people are registered to vote.


The electoral commission should also be tasked with bringing forward proposals to make voting itself easier – my third recommendation. We should follow the example of a large number of countries whose voters are allowed to vote by post, by proxy (where a designated person votes on their behalf), in advance of polling day, in supermarkets, or even by internet. A supposed 21st century democracy like ours needs to start using the resources available to us to make voting as simple and straightforward as possible.

The final recommendation is likely to be seen as more controversial. We should introduce compulsory voting, where citizens are required by law to turn out on election day. A small and growing band of countries operate this including: Australia, Belgium and Luxembourg. Research has shown that it has the biggest impact on turnout, and on participation in politics more generally.

There are many who would object, arguing in particular that this would be anti-democratic. But democracy is more than about rights; it also includes responsibilities. And perhaps the pill could be sweetened by adding a “none of the above” option to the ballot paper, allowing voters to register their protest. Such a move would help to concentrate the minds of politicians on the need to deliver.

The problem of voter turnout requires urgent action by the Government. There are practical steps that can be taken to address this. All it needs is the political will.

David Farrell holds the chair of politics at UCD

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