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Could mandatory voting fix Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional politics?

Voters’ disengagement was clear in last week’s elections – hardly surprising after a year without a government

Emma DeSouza
Emma DeSouza
23 May 2023, 4.09pm

Only 50% of eligible voters took part in this month’s local elections in Northern Ireland


Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

In Australia, voting is often seen as a community celebration. On polling day, surfers and beachgoers queue up in their swimwear to cast their ballots before grabbing a celebratory ‘democracy sausage’, a free hotdog handed out to mark the occasion.

Weather notwithstanding, these images stand in stark contrast with the drab and dreary election cycles in Northern Ireland, which often descend into a sectarian headcount.

Australia’s turnout – upwards of 95% – is also very different to that of Northern Ireland. Voter apathy was seen as the biggest hurdle for parties going into the North’s local elections, particularly given the continued mothballing at Stormont, but with an average turnout of 52%, the electorate has never been all that engaged.

Of course, Australia’s democracy relies on mandatory voting; citizens are required by law to vote, with $20 fines for failing to perform their democratic duties without a reasonable excuse. A similar system – albeit without the fines – could offer a solution for Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional politics, where the repeated failure to deliver stable governance has weakened community trust in democratic politics.

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This was seen in last week’s local elections when only half of eligible voters cast their ballot – a point of despair for many of the parties being squeezed – and in last year’s Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, in which only 17% said they trusted the executive.

It’s true that across the UK voter turnout is typically lower at local elections, but Northern Ireland has also seen lower turnouts than England, Scotland and Wales in the past four general elections and the 2016 Brexit referendum. Voters’ apathy and distrust are perhaps unsurprising given its uniquely fragile political system – a government hasn’t sat in Stormont in well over a year.

Compulsory voting could encourage those who have been disenfranchised by the political stasis to re-engage with the political system. And with a broader range of people participating in the democratic process, our decision-making would become more representative of society.

Turnout in predominantly nationalist areas is consistently higher than in some unionist constituencies. Some 69.4% of voters cast ballots in Mid Ulster’s Moyola district electoral area – where Sinn Féin dominates – compared to just 43.3% in DUP heartland Antrim.

The Ulster Unionists lost 21 seats in last week’s elections, a significant blow for the party. Responding to the results, leader Doug Beattie said: “We have a real issue getting people out of their doors to go and cast their vote in many areas. That is a failure on our behalf. Maybe it is a failing on unionism’s behalf.”

But recent polling indicates that Sinn Féin – which last week became the largest party in local government for the first time – is now the most popular party across all age groups except over-65s, where the DUP has a marginal lead. Unionist voters may not simply be staying home, but slowly disappearing.

Compulsory voting could encourage those who have been disenfranchised by the political stasis to re-engage with the political system

A more engaged electorate and higher turnout could also benefit the smaller parties, many of whom were particularly bruised in this election. People Before Profit lost three of its five sitting councillors, while Mal O’Hara became the second Green Party leader to lose their seat in an election in a year.

A plurality of candidates is good for democracy, and with a host of traditional non-voters looking for a political home, diversity on the ticket would be attractive. Compulsory voting also impacts election campaigns, forcing parties to appeal to voters outside their base. While some will fear this could increase populism, there is also evidence to suggest it could lead to more moderate policies that can benefit wider sections of society, with extremist views and red meat issues less prevalent – particularly beneficial in a post-conflict society.

Evidence indicates that compulsory voting can decrease turnout inequality, with the state and political parties having to work to engage more marginalised communities. In the Netherlands, turnout inequality increased significantly when compulsory voting laws were abolished in the 1960s, according to a 2006 report by the IPPR think tank, which found that low-income and marginalised communities subsequently became disenfranchised from the political system.

Objections to mandatory voting

Those opposed to compulsory voting often cite infringements on personal freedoms, but there are effective ways to ensure people are not obligated to vote for a candidate if they do not wish to do so. A ‘blank vote’ option is on the ballots in Brazil, and deciding to spoil your ballot could continue to serve as a valid protest.

There are valid questions about whether mandatory voting would make it more difficult to vote and criminalise those who are unable to. But Northern Ireland has required voters to have ID at the ballot box since 1985 and measures are already in place to remove obstacles to participation, such as no-fixed abode options for people who are homeless.

And many countries that have mandatory voting either do not issue fines or offer loopholes for those who do not participate in elections. Not all laws are created to be enforced – but where compulsory voting is at least technically required, turnout is around 15% higher than in countries that have a voluntary system.

Some will voice concerns about a lack of political education; just because someone has to vote, doesn’t mean they will make an informed decision. But compulsory voting shifts the burden from individuals to the state, in ensuring the electorate has accessible fact-based information.

The state could go further to facilitate greater participation levels in other ways too. In Australia, for example, you can vote at any polling station in your area and elections are held on a Saturday. When the state becomes responsible for ensuring the participation of all, barriers come down.

Today, many of us take the right to vote for granted, as historical struggles such as the women’s Suffragette movement, the US civil rights movement and Northern Ireland’s own ‘one man, one vote’ campaign slip from living memory. But people fought exhaustedly for that right; they demanded it, some even died for it.

Don’t we have a duty to previous generations, and to ourselves, to take part in the democratic process? We need to remember why our vote matters. Compulsory voting would be a blunt instrument, but one that would transform the political landscape.

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