Voting is a fundamental part of a democracy; it’s never occurred to me not to vote, and yet I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who don’t vote on a fairly consistent basis. At the 2015 general election, 34% of potential voters didn’t cast their ballot. A year later, at the Brexit referendum, 13 million people didn’t cast their vote on what – it could well be argued – was a once in a lifetime vote. On such important issues, it would be easy to imagine that everyone would want to vote. But even then, people in large numbers refused to give their opinion.
How we usually see the results is rather different than the wider context. Here are the details from the 2015 general election as a percentage of votes cast for candidates:
Conservative: 36.9% (331 MPS)
Labour: 30.4% (232 MPS)
Smaller parties: 32.7% (70+ MPs)
But here are the results with a different slant – this time with total registered voters;
Did not vote: 34%
Lib Dem: 3.1%
Other Parties: 2.4%
Puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? The biggest winner here are all those who didn’t vote; it then shows that all the parties only have minority support, and yet we allow these parties to govern and seem to accept the principle that it’s a two-party state. Well, that’s better than a one-party state, I suppose (a la China and North Korea), but people think that we’re not in a position to have any small parties take part in government on a regular basis, excepting the Lib Dems for five years starting in 2015 – that was seen as the exception rather than the rule.
However, we shouldn’t need to accept that principle; why the hell should we? People believe that their vote is meaningless, but with 34% of people not voting at the last election, how can people not see that this block of voters would absolutely determine the outcome of the election? I struggle to comprehend the logic of that attitude.
I do understand peoples’ apathy towards the status quo; people see the political establishment as being out of touch and unwilling to change. But why should they if our voices aren’t being heard? We shouldn’t take democracy for granted. Millions of people across the world don’t have the same right to vote; we actually have the ability to change our government on a regular basis should we choose through peaceful, ordered change; others have to incite bloody revolution to even get a vague taste of we enjoy.
So many people are convinced that their vote doesn’t matter, but look at three votes in the past couple of years; 2015 general election, Brexit, and Trump. Whatever you think of those outcomes, the opinion polls didn’t predict any of these outcomes, because people bucked the trend and came out to vote. If you disagree with those decisions, then use your own vote to challenge – but don’t just sit back and criticise. Put a piece of paper in the ballot box; it gets your voice heard.
How can we can actually convince people, however, to actually feel passionate about elections? Well, here are a few suggestions;
- Educate early and well. Messages that people receive early in life have a strong impact on whether people vote, notes Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York. Parents and teachers should therefore let children know that “voting is important. It’s what makes you a functioning adult.” Teachers can deliver this message in classes where students learn about how their country and government functions.
- Peer pressure. A healthy dose of “naming and shaming” can have a big effect on Election Day. Green and his colleagues demonstrated this in a study published in 2008 in Political Science Review. They applied a little social pressure to voters; right before Michigan’s 2006 Republican primary, the researchers selected a group of 180,000 potential voters. They mailed about 20,000 voters a letter asking them to do their “civic duty” and vote. They mailed another 20,000 a different letter. It asked them to do their civic duty, but added that they were being studied and that their votes were a matter of public record. (In some states, such as Michigan, voting records are publicly available after an election). A third group got the same messages as the second group. But they also got a note that showed them their previous voting record, and the previous voting records of the people in their household. A fourth group got the same information as the third group, as well as being shown the publicly available voting records of their neighbours. The last 99,000 people or so were a control group and got no mailings at all. After all the votes were counted, the scientists saw a 1.8% increase in turnout by people who had been reminded to vote over those who did not get such a mailing. For the group told their votes were a matter of public record, there was a 2.5 percentage point increase. But the biggest increase were among those shown voting records. Turnout increased by 4.9% among people shown their previous voting records. And if voters were also shown their neighbors voting records, turnout at the polls rose a whopping 8.1%. Although shaming may get out the vote, Green cautions that it likely also burns bridges. But peer pressure doesn’t always have to be mean, however; asking friends directly to vote — and then making sure they do — might be effective, Green says.
- Healthy competition. “People are going to participate when they think they’re going to make a difference,” says Eyal Winter. An economist, he works at the Universities of Leicester and Jerusalem. He notes that there is higher voter turnout when an election is close and there’s no telling who might win. Winter compares elections to football or baseball games. When two close rivals face off, their competitions will draw much bigger crowds than when one team is sure to roll right over another.
- The personal touch. Hundreds of studies have been done on what gets people to vote. Some of the studies might be partisan — focusing on people who support a particular party. Others might focus on both major parties or even on people in general. Such research has probed everything from how much money to spend on voicemail messages to crafting the ideal subject line for an email.
I’m a passionate advocate of voting; I even think that voting should be made compulsory, but recognise that we need to make people believe in voting, rather than just force people to vote. People need to feel committed to the process, and we all have a part to play in that.