I’ve been having a debate this afternoon with Sam Clifford of Public Polity over Twitter about the role of low turnout in the performance of the British National Party in the European Parliament election, the value of compulsory voting and how this all interacts. Sam wrote a post at Public Polity pointing out how a combination of proportional representation and low turnout tends to help far-right parties (although I would question the universality of that statement, I admit it did help the BNP in England yesterday).
I disputed the value of compulsory voting in dealing with issues of low voter turnout. Unlike most people I know who are actively interested in Australian politics, I actually think that compulsory voting is a bad thing, and treats a symptom of political dysfunction while hiding the real problem.
First of all, let’s look at the facts regarding the BNP’s performance in the UK yesterday. It’s true that turnout was very depressed across the UK and the European Union, with 43% turnout continent-wide and much lower in the UK. Indeed, in both North-West England and Yorkshire and the Humber, the BNP won more raw votes in 2004 than in 2009, but lower turnout resulting in a smaller number of votes producing a winning result. It appears that, rather than the expenses scandal and general disillusionment driving Labour voters into the hands of the BNP, they mostly stayed home giving the BNP more bang for their buck. It’s also worth putting the result in its own perspective: the BNP won two seats out of 72 UK electorates in a Parliament of 736. The result puts them in no sort of position of influence or balance of power, and they are not at the moment part of any European parliament group which would give them resources. They only polled 6.2% and are still not in with a credible chance of winning seats in the House of Commons.
It’s also worth recognising that, in spite of all the howling from British political figures about the great shame on their country in having neofascists as elected representatives, they are hardly the first. Parties like the Flemish Bloc, the Pym Fortun List, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the French National Front, the Italian National Alliance, the Austrian Freedom Party and many other neofascist parties have performed much more strongly in the past than the BNP, not to mention Australia’s own One Nation. Ultranationalist parties have a place in a political system, like any other party. As long as there are racists and bigots in a society, some of them will form a political party and run for office.
Arguments have been pushed that the European proportional representation system allowed the BNP to win representation. Of course it is true that PR allowed the BNP to win seats in the European Parliament they would have otherwise not won, it’s worth remembering that the BNP have won many council seats in England, where all councils are elected by first past the post. Furthermore, I would argue that the UK’s system of first-past-the-post has encouraged the phenomenom where England’s north has been abandoned by the Conservatives and taken for granted by Labour, allowing voters to feel disillusioned and turn to the BNP or drop out of the system. If you assume that some BNP voters turn to the party out of frustration that their voices aren’t heard by Westminster, it seems perverse to prefer electoral systems that ensure that these people’s concerns are well-founded, rather than dealing with them. The attitude to PR and the BNP seems to be “if these people feel disenfranchised, we better make sure that their votes don’t make a difference”.
Sam also made the argument that non-compulsory voting allowed the BNP to win by allowing much lower turnout levels. While this is true in the short term, I argue that compulsory voting covers up political dysfunction in a society and encourages political parties to ignore their own bases.
It seems that faith in compulsory voting is a cornerstone of our civic religion in Australia. It is seen as just as essential to our representative democracy as the secret ballot and universal suffrage. It is very hard to find people in political parties and the media who openly question compulsory voting, even within alternative parties like the Greens. I originally thought like that before being challenged by a New Zealand Greens MP, Nandor Tanczos, in 2005 to explain why compulsory voting was actually a good policy. We in Australia seem to have been taken in by the idea that anyone who does not vote is failing in their duty to our democracy, which seems a very odd thing for people to believe in such a laidback country as Australia.
I believe that voluntary voting is a preferable model for two main reasons which relate to the importance of variable levels of turnout. Firstly, election turnout is an important barometer of dysfunction in a political system and disillusionment with government, the state, the electoral system and political parties. Where you feel that your vote does not matter because you genuinely don’t care about which party wins, or you know your vote won’t count because you live in a safe seat, or where you don’t believe that the representatives you are electing will have any real power to make change, then it is perfectly rational and reasonable to not vote. Low turnout in the European Parliament reflected the reality that MEPs of all parties are distant from their constituents and that the European Parliament, despite the interesting exercise of the European election process and its role as the only truly democratic body in the EU, remains largely powerless in comparison to other EU bodies. Low turnout in the European election reflects the need to rectify the democratic deficit in the EU. Until that is rectified, European politicians don’t deserve the extra legitimacy that comes with a high turnout.
Likewise, countries with electoral systems that make every vote count tend to have much higher levels of voter turnout, with turnout on the European mainland in national elections much higher than in Canada, the UK and the United States. I tend to think that if Australia abolished compulsory voting, we would fall somewhere between New Zealand and the United States, as we have a proportional Senate and preference voting ensures more votes count (although this only really applies in marginal seats).
Compulsory voting hides the disillusionment and dysfunction that is endemic in Australia’s political system. Forcing unwilling voters to the polls only hides one symptom of this dysfunction, it does not cure the disease. If we want people to vote, we should encourage them by implementing electoral systems that make every vote count and shame politicians into being better representatives.
I also think that voluntary voting ensures that political parties recognise the importance of their own loyal voters in getting them elected. In Australia, both the major parties rely on large swathes of voters who can be relied upon to vote for their party at every election and makes no effort to appeal to them, either when setting their party’s agenda or in their campaign activity. While it is important to appeal to the centre ground, a political system where only swinging voters matter is dysfunctional. If you look at the US, candidates and parties must convince centrist independents to vote for them while inspiring and motivating their own base to come out and vote.
I’ve heard it said that far-right parties find it easier to motivate their supporters to come out and vote. I would argue, rather, that parties that more closely reflect their voters in terms of their policy agenda find it easier to motivate those voters to turn up and vote. In a political system with only two parties, unsurprisingly neither party is particularly close to its voter base, so its voters tend to be less motivated. If you have a system where there are five or six significant parties along the spectrum, each is more effective at motivating its loyal voter base to turn out.
Rather than trying to shut them out of the electoral system, or forcing unwilling voters to go to the polls and vote for whichever name they recognise, the way to deal with far-right parties is to look at the root causes of their support. Systems of proportional representation bring major parties closer to the people, and help break down the barriers between voters and politicians. As well as that, the major parties must take responsibility for destroying trust in the political system, which helps foster support for the BNP and similar parties. You must also recognise, however, that there is a certain bigot element in every society, and some of them will run for office, and occasionally win. A proportional system means every voice is heard and are represented appropriately, but you need to distinguish between representation and power. A few seats held by far-right extremists in any parliament does not destroy the legitimacy of that Parliament or threaten democracy. Indeed, treating all political parties with respect and giving them their due can often break down the claims of parties like the BNP and show them for their true colours. That is how you ultimately defeat extremists and improve democracy.