Labour wants to fine people who don't vote, criminalising thousands in Newcastle, endangering democracy

March 26, 2015 10:02 PM

Labour Councillors have unanimously voted against a motion which would have rejected the idea of forcing people to vote or be fined. Councillors Robin Ashby and Pauline Allen set out the case against compulsion.

Councillor Robin Ashby said : As a Liberal Democrat I believe in educating, informing, engaging, persuading and even chivvying. I don't believe in compulsion unless there is no alternative and the outcome is to the undoubted public good

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In January a Labour MP introduced a bill into the House of Commons to make voting compulsory. This motion relates to the previous one, but it's the idea that didn't dare speak its name in it. Last month its proposer Cllr Lambert advocated the idea in the LGA magazine and The Journal. He wants everybody to be forced to vote under pain of a fine.


Let's just think about what would happen if such a law were passed. This Council could be forced into a role like that of the secret police in a tin pot dictatorship.
We'd have to haul our residents off to court for not registering. Then we'd be snooping to make sure they voted. How many would believe we were checking up on how they voted - that's the end of trust between the governors and the governed, the end of the secret ballot. And if they hadn't voted, we'd have to hit them with the law again.


How on earth would we maintain the pretence that we are a co-operative council, an enabling one, when we're knocking on people's doors in this way with the heavy hand of the law and penalties?


So - let's imagine the recalcitrant voter, metaphorically being marched to the ballot box. Is he or she going to take a rational view of the choice on offer and make a sober selection of the best candidate? Or is he or she going to say "a plague on the lot of you" and vote for some new Nazi or Stalinist? Or will the forced voters spoil their papers? Election counts will be SUCH fun….


Then logically if you MUST vote then there isn't a candidate to your liking, surely you'd have to be offered a "none of the above" option. What happens to legitimacy if you're elected not just on a minority of those voting, but instead when a majority clearly indicate that they don't want you? How democratic is that?
It is clear to me and to anyone who thinks through the discussions we have had earlier that the answer to the lack of engagement in the democratic process is not compulsion but education, information, engagement, persuasion and maybe chivvying.
So having debated the idea that has been advocated, let's put it back onto the scrap heap.

Councillor Pauline Allen said : Compulsory voting is, strictly speaking, impossible to impose. In the privacy of the Polling Booth who can force you to vote? To even get people to the polling booth it would have to be made compulsory for residents to register to vote. Then what is to stop them spoiling their ballot paper? And is a government more legitimate if people are forced against their will to vote?


There are twenty to thirty (I've seen figures of 23 and 29) countries that have mandatory voting laws. And only 10 of those actually enforce these laws. As has often been mentioned registering to vote and going to the polls are legal duties in Australia, and have been since 1924, for citizens aged 18 and over, and failing to do so can result in a small fine (£9 - £21) and potentially a day in court. And speaking as a Magistrate this sounds expensive in time and money to impose.


Supporters of the system say Australia boasts some of the highest civic participation in the world, with a reported 94% voter turnout in the last federal election, compared with about 65% in the UK's 2010 general election and an estimated 57% in the 2012 US presidential election.


But apparently around 10% of Australians are not even registered to vote and according to the Australian Election Commission, a third of the overall number of eligible voters who are not enrolled are between 18 and 24 years old.


Alongside this is the increase in recent years of spoilt ballots which count for around 6% of the total votes cast in the 2010 election. Taken together with the number of eligible voters who fail to register, the actual percentage for voter turnout in Australia's federal elections hovers in the low 80s. And how many of those who didn't spoil their ballot paper actually cared who they were voting for?
Instead of trying to force people to vote we should be inspiring them to become involved in the political process by showing them that those of us who are involved are doing so out of a sense of civic responsibility rather than for our own selfish interests. So perhaps we should all look to ourselves before forcing others to do something that some of them clearly don't want to do at present.
As the recent TV programme, 'Suffragettes Forever', presented by Amanda Vickery, surely reminded all of us, people, especially women, fought long and hard to obtain the right to vote so we should all treasure this right rather than devaluating it by using the law to enforce it.