‘Why don’t people vote? You asked Google – here’s the answer’, Guardian 27 July 2016.

For those of us who troop down to the polling station at every election, it can be pretty frustrating that not everybody does the same – especially when we end up with a result we don’t like, and which we reckon might have turned out differently if only they had. It’s not as if it takes much effort and, after all, didn’t people die to win us the right to hold whoever’s in power to account?

Maybe so, but the question is probably best approached – at least initially – by turning round the telescope. Instead of asking why people don’t vote, we might reasonably ask why anyone bothers in the first place. Given that the likelihood of any election being decided by a single vote is so small, especially in contests where the eligible electorate runs into the thousands, it makes little or no sense for any of us to devote our precious time to deciding who to vote for and then casting a ballot in their favour.

This so-called “paradox of voting” has intrigued political scientists – especially those who like to see themselves as belonging to the “rational choice” school – for ages. The answer most commonly arrived at is that those who do turn out must derive some utility, however indirect, from the act of voting.

Perhaps they like to see themselves as good citizens – part, or even pillars, of a community – and therefore feel a warm glow of satisfaction after performing their civic duty. Or perhaps they are ideologues or into identity politics – in which case, the warm glow comes from expressing solidarity with those who share the same ideals or characteristics. Or maybe they just worry that if they don’t go and vote, then who else will?

According to this logic, then, people who don’t vote are those for whom the concepts of community and civic duty don’t mean much. Nor does ideology or some sort of politicised identity – unless of course they cleave to an ideology or an identity that sets itself up in such conscious opposition to the mainstream that voting would be associated with conforming to lame or oppressive conventions. Or maybe – and not unreasonably, given that many people still do go out and vote – they’re not overly worried that their failure to do so will have negative consequences for anybody, not least for themselves.

It doesn’t require much imagination then, to realise that some demographics are less likely to vote than others, and the empirical evidence provides plentiful support for that. Those who don’t turn out often have (or at least feel they have) less of a stake in society, and are people for whom informing themselves about candidates and issues would involve taking an interest in stuff to which they wouldn’t normally pay much attention. We are talking, in other words, about the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested. Worryingly, the gap between such people and the rest has been rising over time as bodies such as trade unions, which used to help close it by encouraging these groups to vote, have declined.

But it’s not all about demography or social and educational status. Indeed, one of the standout findings from comparative research is that, for a mysterious mixture of historical, cultural and institutional reasons, low turnout seems to have become the norm in some countries (the post-communist states of central and eastern Europe, for example), whereas other countries (such as the Nordic states) consistently record high turnout.

People’s willingness to turn out is also contingent on political circumstances. In certain situations even those who might normally vote feel less inclined to do so. If the result of an election looks like a foregone conclusion, then that produces a lower turnout. This also tends to happen if one election is held relatively soon after another. Turnout is similarly depressed if people feel that the differences between the choices on offer are small or that the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague.

The way in which elections are conducted can also make a difference. Perhaps not surprisingly, giving people the chance to vote by post boosts turnout, albeit marginally. Holding elections at weekends and making it easy to register to vote, however late, makes a positive difference too. And proportional representation, while it’s far from being the silver bullet that some of its more starry-eyed advocates claim, may well encourage more people to vote – especially when parties make it clear who their likely coalition partners will be, either during the campaign or before it. That has to be balanced against the fact, however, that the complexity and divided governments that PR sometimes produces may actually discourage less educated and politically interested people from voting.

For those hoping to see developments in digital life transform politics, there is some evidence to suggest that VAAs (Voter Advice Applications, which can be used on a computer, tablet or a phone to tell you which party most closely matches your preferences) may increase turnout among young people, although there is also evidence to suggest that those who consult them and don’t find much of a match are actually put off participating. Voting over the web, which is only really done on any large scale in Estonia, could make a difference in the long-term; but the evidence as yet is far from conclusive.

The most robust finding from research on voting and non-voting, however, is something of a no-brainer: compulsory voting ensures higher turnout. Conventional wisdom says we should ignore this: the right not to vote, it is argued, is as important as the right to do so, and there are fears (largely unfounded, according to research from places like Australia where it is the norm) that obliging people to turn out will lead to frivolous or protest voting.

On the other hand, if non-voting is on the increase, then there could come a point where so few people cast a ballot that the essential legitimacy of the polity is called into question. Moreover, we already know that politicians, needing to win elections, tend to cater to – and even pander to – those who do vote and ignore those who do not. If compulsory voting is what it takes to ensure, to quote Abe Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, then maybe we need to consider it as an option.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/27/why-dont-people-vote-google


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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