Before the results were even in for last week’s Euro and local elections, the grumbling about low voter turnout and apparent legitimacy concerns about returned candidates had already started. Playing down the strength of Eurosceptic feeling in the UK, the Europhile blogosphere was quick to assert that UKIP polling 27.5% in a 36% turnout election equates to votes cast by 10% of the eligible population. Bypassing the fact this assessment ignores the election of Eurosceptic MEPs from other parties like the DUP’s Dianne Dodds and half a dozen anti-EU Conservatives, it also conveniently side-steps the fact that 2014 represents a historic high for EU election turnout.
Although turnout is up two points on 2009 and up a remarkable 50% from 15 years ago, some remain convinced that the best way to get voters to the polling station is not by offering policies that engage with genuine concerns (like UKIP, who claim to enjoy the support of many who have previously been disillusioned with politics), but to compel by other more sinister means. Baroness Williams, clearly aggrieved that only the ‘wrong’ voters had bothered to turn out on Thursday popped up on Sky News to suggest that the solution would be to punish non-voters.
The conceit that high voter turnout is a prerequisite of a healthy democracy is often repeated at election time, indeed an opinion piece in the Independent last week does just that, even though the suggestion has little bearing on reality. Although high turnout gives a stronger mandate, we often associate high turnout with political instability or national crisis, where people are desperate for change. Introducing an illiberal system of compulsion would do nothing to solve voter apathy, and needlessly criminalises the silent majority who would rather be left alone.
When a Liberal Democrat peer calls for voting to be made compulsory on national television, it is not out of genuine concern for this nation’s democratic health. It feels more like bitterness that only 2% of eligible voters opted for the ‘party of in’ at the Euro elections, and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats.
Oliver Lane, Researcher