Written by Harvey Dryer

Voter turnout is a very simple political concept but, set against the backdrop of a democratic society, its analysis should not be shallow or meagre. It often revolves around a percentage. Specifically, voter turnout is the percentage of the electorate that participates in an election and acts as a summary of participation. The level of participation is one of the primary determinants of a successful democracy. If participation is lacking then the legitimacy of democratic polities is undermined. 

In recent times, pejorative terms, such as ‘democratic deficit,’ have been ascribed to UK political institutions, which is a telling sign that the legitimacy of UK political representatives isn’t as robust as it should be. It is no wonder that Parliament, the United Kingdom’s most sovereign political institution, is still in discussion about how they could improve voter turnout in General Elections. Voter turnout impacts their political power and authority. In 2014, the UK Parliament published a report outlining ways to increase turnout. Their suggestions included: a statutory requirement for mandatory voting, electoral reform and an increased level of online campaigning. These measures have an aim – to provide a higher level of participation and ergo, strengthen the legitimacy of the UK Government. But the achievement of this aim should not come at the expense of other democratic values, otherwise our democracy wouldn’t holistically benefit. The legitimacy of our political institutions is only one facet of democracy. The means by which we achieve a higher level of participation in General Elections, and those means’ effects on democracy, must be considered as well as the ends. 

The introduction of compulsory voting is a contentious, yet effective method of increasing levels of political participation in elections. There are twenty-two states that have mandatory voting, including Argentina, Australia and Belgium. With turnout at their elections consistently exceeding 90%, there is no doubt that these states’ polities do not lack legitimacy. In the Australian 2019 Federal General Election, there was a 92% turnout (“Australian Electoral Commission,” 2019), which was 25% more than the turnout in the 2019 UK General Election (“Results of the 2019 General Election,” 2019). In addition, the Belgian General Election of 2019 had a turnout of 90% (“IFES Election Guide,” 2019). Very few demographics are underrepresented because of the sheer proportion of the electorate that participates, which in turn gives more weight to the legitimacy of these states’ polities. Those controlling polities have had their power provided by the majority of the overwhelming masses, not a majority of meagre turnout. Cases in 2001, when the Labour party was voted in by 21% (Snow, 2001) of the population are avoided in states that use mandatory voting. 

When there is a substantial differential between the level of public support and the level political power received, like there was in the 2001 UK General Election, a deficit is induced. This deficit refers to the shortfalls of public support compared with gains of political power. It is known as the democratic deficit (Marquand, 1979) and was first introduced to critique the European Union (EU). With participation levels rarely breaching the 75% mark (Clark, 2019) a democratic deficit aptly describes the state of legitimacy of UK polities too. If political actors or groups, who do not represent a substantial proportion of the electorate, have control of UK political institutions, which have significant political sovereignty, their mandate to govern is weak. If so, the existence of our democracy has become ostensible and needs a quick fix. Mandatory voting is a simple, yet effective tool in minimising the democratic deficit. “Rule by the people,” – a translation of ‘democracy’ – is not an accurate description of our polities. 

There is little room to criticise the level of representation and mandate present in democracies where mandatory voting is not required. Democratically elected officials and the institutions they operate in clearly stand to benefit from the active participation of all its citizens. 

Enforcing democratic institutions, such as voting, on citizens creates a trade-off between different facets of democracy. The key trade-off in question concerns legitimacy and the protection of rights and liberties of domiciles. Compulsory voting forces people to participate when they may not wish to, fostering resentment towards the government. This can be seen in the number of spoilt ballots in the Australian 2010 General Election, which was a significant 6% (Beck, 2013). There is a reasonably large group of people who feel that it is not right for people to be compelled to vote, or face a $20 dollar fine. Even in a field containing several candidates, representing a plethora of distinct views, there are some who find themselves unable to choose – but are sadly forced too. Without the freedom to abstain from voting, some vote solely to appease a democratic constraint and avoid the fine. Voting is then no longer an exercise of freedom, it become an obstacle to freedom. UK civil liberties do not stand to benefit from the introduction of mandatory voting. Mandatory voting increases legitimacy of polities but is balanced out by the curtailment of individual freedoms. Democracy achieves no net gain. 

In sum, it is an empirical fact that mandatory voting is a measure that can be utilised to improve voter turnout. Whether it should be utilised is contingent on the trade off between the legitimacy of polities and the freedom of citizens. If the democratic institution of voting is made mandatory then it will have an adverse effect on citizens’ attitudes towards their own democracy. The core of democracy, in states that have mandatory voting, is contentious. In states that do not utilise mandatory voting, citizens have the ability to truly exercise their political voice. Abstaining is an exercise of that voice. Democratic participation should include a non-participatory option – the ability to not vote.

Electoral reform could play a vital role in increasing levels of participation without creating a trade-off between different democratic values. In the UK, political representatives are elected to the House of Commons using ‘Single Member Simple Plurality,’ or more commonly known as First Past the Post (FPTP). In FPTP, candidates stand in single-member constituencies and whoever receives the most votes wins. Winning seats is the order of the day in elections. Seats are represented in Parliament, not votes, creating a zero-sum-game. There is no direct link between votes gained and seats won in the Commons. An illustration of this analysis is present in the 2015 General Election, when the UK Independence Party (UKIP) received 12.6% of the vote and only won one seat (“Election 2015,” 2015). The disproportionality present in this result can be explained by the electoral system’s bias toward parties with strong regional support, which include the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Electoral deserts, where there is no representation of people who vote for candidates who don’t win, are created by the swathes of ‘safe seats’ belonging to the largest parties. If a Liberal Democrat party supporter lives in a predominantly Conservative region, and there is little chance of the Liberal Democratic candidate winning that seat, it seems pointless to vote for the Liberal Democratic candidate. Supporters of smaller parties are less likely to vote due to the constituency they live in. Although FPTP may just induce tactical voting, which doesn’t reduce the level of participation, it diminishes the meaning and political beliefs that votes portray. This has eroded our freedom of political expression. Electoral reform, that reduces the importance of regions, is a potent measure that would boost voter turnout and forego tactical voting. 

With the archaic attributes of FPTP, electoral reform seems appealing in theory. However, the practical likelihood of electoral reform is low. The Liberal Democrats, who helped form a coalition government with the Conservatives, were keen to reform our electoral system and introduce the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which entailed voters ranking candidates in order of preference. This would eliminate tactical voting and the significant impact that regions have on voting behaviour. In 2011, they held a referendum, which asked the public whether they would prefer the AV system, and 68% voted no, with a 41% turnout (Hawkins, 2011). The low turnout and the low levels of support portrayed a lack of appetite for constitutional change. Electoral reform was clearly not a salient issue. The only other alternative means of electoral reform is via Parliament. It is unlikely that the governing party would ever reform a system that put them into power, because any reform would reduce their seat count. Their grip on Parliament would be loosened. It is unlikely that any party would knowingly surrender its authority. 

In theory, electoral reform could enfranchise new voters. It could do away with electoral deserts, tactical voting and other issues with the current electoral system. In a fairer system, where votes cast are more proportional to seats won, everyone’s vote would be more equally weighted. Everyone’s vote would make a difference. Unfortunately, the UK public was not convinced by these sentiments and Parliament is unlikely to pursue reform, especially after the 2011 referendum result. This measure should increase voter turnout, but its realisation in UK politics is inconceivable. 

The final measure put forward by the Parliamentary report was to increase the amount of online campaigning. An increased use of online advertisement, through platforms such as social media, could increase the amount of votes cast from the most underrepresented age group in the electorate: 18-24 year olds. Only 43% of young voters participated in the 2015 General Election, which is extraordinarily low when compared to the 78% of 65 years and older voters who cast their vote (“How Britain Voted in 2015,” 2015). The disparity not only shows a lack of youth engagement, it portrays a lack of representation of younger voters in Parliament. As tens of millions of young people are active on social media each day, Parliament suggested that politicians could utilise this medium to win votes and engage younger generations. The Labour Party did this exceptionally well in the 2017 General Election with their online campaign, which revolved around Facebook videos that received roughly ten million views. Empirical evidence has yielded a success for the hypothesis asserted at the beginning of this paragraph. As a result of Labour’s willingness to connect with young people, the turnout increased to 64% in 2017. Labour received 62% of the votes cast by those aged between 18-24 (“How Britain Voted in 2017,” 2017). 

Encouraging new voters is key to increasing the level of participation. Engaging younger voters to become more involved in politics adds a vibrant, fresh and enthusiastic engagement with contemporary political issues. Younger generations have taken the lead on modern issues, such as environmental protection and racial inequality. Their commitment to raising awareness, via social media platforms and protests, has put contemporary issues at the forefront of the legislative agenda. Their representation in Parliament could provide the kinetic energy required for a more progressive style of politics in the UK. So, as well as online campaigning increasing representation and turnout, UK political discourse – enriched by new opinions – would also benefit. 

However, online political campaigning has come under intense scrutiny since the revelation of data mining that revolved around the IT management company, Cambridge Analytica LTD. Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, in “The Great Hack,” explored the threat to democracy posed by targeted, online political campaigning (Cadwalladr, 2019). This resulted from a discovery of a mass data harvest, by Cambridge Analytica, of Facebook users to be exploited for political campaigning. 

Targeting voters has been synoptic throughout campaigning history. Data, such as voting records, addresses, emails, mobile phone numbers, employment, has been harvested by local and national campaigners to strategically target particular voters. Online targeting allows for highly specific targeting, based on a range of behavioural and interest-based factors. This raises questions over privacy of information and the transparency of political campaigning. Cadwalladr even compared online political advertisements, used in the 2016 US Presidential election and Brexit referendum, with propaganda. Such claims do not bode well for any democracy. These issues are compounded by the lack of transparency over how information is being obtained, used and manipulated. Without a modern legislative framework that protects privacy, emphasises transparency and reduces the reoccurrence of scandals similar to that involving Cambridge Analytica, the electorate operate as ‘guinea pigs’ for innovative party communication and campaign teams. It is now plausible that the electorate’s phones are coercing them into supporting a party, or political actor. Dystopian stories like those of “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Man in the High Castle” are bridging the gap between fiction and reality. 

What makes online campaigning contentious is its modernity. To ensure that UK General Elections are democratically undertaken, politicians and voters are required to become accustomed to the new form of political campaigning. To avoid subversive messages, the legislative framework behind elections needs be updated. So, although online campaigning can be a source of increasing turnout by engaging younger, first-time voters, a period of adjustment is a fundamental prerequisite to ensure that there is no ‘foul play.’ 

In conclusion, the measures of increasing voter turnout: introducing mandatory voting, changing our electoral system and increasing the amount of online campaigning all have the ability to increase voter turnout and thus, strengthen the legitimacy of UK Government. However, the answer to this question doesn’t lie with which measure can be taken, but with which measures should be taken. The implementation of compulsory voting and unregulated online campaign impedes other facets of democracy, counteracting any gains made by increased levels of participation. Meanwhile, electoral reform is practically unachievable. The relationship between FPTP and the two main parties make it so. If the variety of ideals, which form democracy, do not collectively benefit from these measures, then there is little point in implementing the discussed measures. The integrity of UK democracy will not benefit. None of these measures should be implemented at this point in time. Only measures that are both practically possible and not sacrificial of other democratic values – for the sake of higher levels of participation – should be sought after. The search for such measures continues.   


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