Election day call for compulsory youth voting

Older people have too much influence because they are more likely to vote. To balance this, a powerful think tank has just proposed that the young should be forced to the polls.

Today, 18 million people around England and Wales are entitled to vote for a candidate to represent them in 2,300 local council wards in England and Wales. Among those voters should be swaths of young people who are now old enough to participate for the first time.

But evidence from previous elections shows that these young people’s views will be underrepresented, because voters aged between 18 and 25 are the least likely of any group to exercise their democratic right.

While 76% of the over-65s voted in the last general election, the turnout among under-25s was only 44%, and the age gap has been getting steadily wider in the last 30 years. Opinion polls suggest that less than a third of young people now see voting as a civic duty. And in families and local areas where no one else is voting, encouragement from parents or friends is scarce.

The IPPR think tank is worried about ‘a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation’. It argues that more and more young people, particularly in less affluent families, are deciding that politics has little to say to them: but opting out weakens their influence and therefore makes the problem worse.

Now the think tank wonks have come up with a radical solution: fine young people if they don’t vote the first time they are entitled to. ‘What?’ cry the traditionalists. How can this intrusion into freedom of choice be justified?

Because unequal turnout leads to unfair results once a government or council is elected, reformers argue: politicians try harder to woo those voters who are most likely to take the trouble to turn up at the polling station.

So older voters have ended up with an excessively powerful voice – for example, pensioner benefits have been protected during the current round of government spending cuts, but financial support for 16 to 18-year-olds still in education has been abolished and university tuition fees raised.

In other words, non-voters have been hit harder than voters.

Vote early, vote often

Some want to force the young to ‘flex their muscle through the ballot box’ and be cured of their apathy. If they aren’t encouraged, cajoled, even compelled to vote, their issues will remain too far down the list of political priorities.

But if democracy is being distorted and made unequal because certain groups can’t be bothered to turn up and vote, object others, isn’t that their own fault? Having the vote is the right of all citizens over the age of 18, but surely that right brings with it a responsibility – a duty even – to make informed choices about who governs? Failing to vote carries with it the punishment of not being politically represented – is there really a need for the law to get involved too?

You Decide

  1. Should first time voting be madecompulsoryor remain voluntary?
  2. ‘It’s up to politicians to make all voters feel there’s a reason to turn up at the polls.’ Do you agree this proposal would make the parties lazy?


  1. Write two short first person accounts: one from a young first time voter in the UK, another from a first time voter of any age in a country where free and fair elections have just become possible.
  2. Start your own think tank: List some other ways to make young people more likely to vote, from the practical to the inventive.

Some People Say...

“If you don’t turn up to vote, you have no right to complain about how the country is run.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m looking forward to voting once I reach 18.
That’s great! And those who get the voting habit while young are more likely to keep on participating. But researchers worry that this creates a lifelong divide between those groups who use their influence and therefore attract the politicians’ attention, and those who don’t.
Won’t compulsion just alienate the youth vote even more?
It might. But the evidence shows most under-25s don’t bother with elections these days, and the problem is getting worse. If there is a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot paper, a young voter could still register their dissatisfaction with the choices on offer and avoid a fine.

Word Watch

The percentage of those eligible to vote who actually do so. Includes those who turn up and then spoil their ballot paper rather than choosing a candidate.
The Institute for Public Policy Research is a left-of-centre organisation with close links to the Labour party. It conducts research into how to solve various social and political problems.
About a quarter of the world’s democracies have some form of compulsory voting, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Turkey, Thailand, Luxembourg and Argentina. But not all them enforce the law, and nowhere do you have to vote rather than say you don’t want to choose any of the candidates or parties.

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