Young voters should be required to vote first time round

Published: 23 August 2013

Compulsory first-time voting could tackle political inequality and empower young voters.

Voting should be compulsory for your first election, according to a new report co-authored by a University of Glasgow academic and to be published by the think tank IPPR next month. Last week, Labour announced that they will drop the voting age to 16 if elected in 2015, and it has been reported that Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan is considering making first time voting compulsory.

Under IPPR’s plan, young voters would be required to go to the polling station to vote and would face a small fine if they didn’t. But IPPR also proposes that they would be given a ‘none of the above’ option, so they would not be forced to vote for a party.

The report warns that lowering the voting age without making voting in your first election compulsory could actually make turnout inequality between the young and old even worse.

The report shows that Britain has one of the largest differences in voter turnout between young and old people in Europe. These trends are reflected in local elections where it is estimated that in 2013 only 32% of 18-24 year olds voted, compared with 72% of those aged over 65.

IPPR’s report shows that electoral participation is falling fastest among the young and the least affluent, which gives well-off and older voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box. IPPR’s analysis estimates that the turnout rate for an individual under the age of 35 earning less than £10,000 a year is just 34 per cent, whereas the turnout rate of someone who is over 55 and who has an income of at least £40,000 a year is 79 per cent.

The report shows that only 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2010 General Election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Turnout inequality between young and old voters has grown at an alarming rate in recent years and shows little sign of being reversed: the 18 point turnout gap between 18-24 year olds and those aged over 65 that existed in 1970 had grown to a 32 point gap by 2010.

The report's authors say voting matters as there are fewer incentives for the Government to respond to the interests of non-voting groups. The spending cuts have disproportionately affected young people, with 16-24 year olds facing cuts to services worth 28% of their annual household income, compared to 10% of the income of those aged 55-74.IPPR’s analysis shows that overall those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20% of their annual household income, compared to 12% of those who did vote. Those with annual household income under £10,000 stand to lose 41 per cent of their average income. By contrast those with income over £60,000 will lose on average £2,104, which represents only 3 per cent of this group’s income

In addition, IPPR’s report shows a dramatic social class divide in electoral participation has opened up in recent decades. In 1987, the difference between the income group with the highest turnout rate and the group with the lowest rate was only 4 percentage points. In 2010 however this spread significantly increased to 23 percentage points – an increase of more than fivefold. By 2010, individuals in the highest income group were 43 per cent more likely to vote than those in the lowest income group.  The report argues that economic inequality depresses electoral participation by discouraging the less affluent to vote. In contrast, countries that have less inequality have higher rates of electoral participation.

The report shows that people who vote in the first election they are eligible for are more likely to continue voting throughout their life. The report shows that countries that have compulsory voting are successful at maintaining high levels of participation. In Belgium – where compulsory voting is law but not enforced – the voter turnout for those under the age of 20 is 87%. The difference in voter turnout between old and young and rich and poor voters is almost non-existent.

Sarah Birch, Professor of Politics at the University of Glasgow, and co-author of the report said: “Unless radical action is taken, turnout inequalities in Britain will grow wider. First time compulsory voting could well be very effective in engaging young people in politics. There are many other things that young people are required to do, not the least of which is go to school. Adding just one more small task to this list would not represent an undue burden, and it could well help to reinvigorate democracy. It would make politicians target first-time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for far greater political power.”

Guy Lodge, IPPR Associate Director, said: “Unequal turnout matters because it gives older and more affluent voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box. Turnout rates among the young have fallen significantly which means there is less incentive for politicians to pay attention to them.

“Young people who don’t vote today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they get older, which is why first time compulsory voting is so important. Unequal turnout unleashes a vicious cycle of disaffection and under-representation. As policy becomes less responsive to their interests, more and more decide that politics has little to say to them.”

Notes to Editors

Divided Democracy: political inequality in the UK by Sarah Birch, Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried will be published in September. Details of the project can be found here

Approximately a quarter of all democracies in the world today employ some form of compulsory voting, and many have adopted the measure in the last few decades.Turnout in Australia has averaged 94.5 per cent in the 24 elections since 1946. In Belgium turnout has averaged 92.7 per cent in nineteen elections since 1946.

All eligible Australian citizens on the electoral roll are required to cast a vote in Federal and Commonwealth elections, unless they can provide a valid and sufficient reason for not voting, including: 

  • It is part of the elector's religious duty to abstain from voting
  • The elector was not present in Australia on polling day
  • A belief that it is morally wrong to vote
  • Physical obstruction, either through sickness, outside prevention or natural events or accident.
  • Diversion to save life, prevent crime or assist in a disaster.

Reasons not considered to be valid or sufficient include: 

  • Conscientious objections to compulsory voting, falling short of a belief that it is morally wrong to vote
  • A belief that compulsory voting is inconsistent with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
  • No preference for any of the candidates

The Australian Electoral Commission is required to send three notices to all those who appear to have failed to vote, asking for a valid and sufficient reason or requiring the non-voter to pay a fine of AU$20 - the equivalent of about £12. Court proceedings for failure are prohibited if the elector pays the penalty or had a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote. If, after receiving the third notice, the elector does not pay the penalty, the Electoral Commission may prosecute the elector for failure to vote. The court may impose a maximum penalty of AU$50 - about £30. A magistrate cannot sentence an elector who has been convicted of the offence of failure to vote to imprisonment. However, if an elector is fined by the court and refuses or neglects to pay the fine within the time allowed for payment, an arrest warrant may be issued.

Under the current rules, all those resident in the UK are obliged to provide Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) with the information they are asked for, or face a £1,000 fine. EROs then use this information to enter electors’ names on the register. Thus electoral registration is effectively compulsory. The Coalition Government recently proposed moving to a system of voluntary enrolment at the time of the planned introduction of individual voter registration, but this proposal was abandoned. Reforms currently underfoot will see many voters registered automatically by EROs through the use of data held by other state agencies. BME voters in the 2010 General Election turned out to vote at roughly the same rate as ‘White British’ voters but there is a large discrepancy between those registered to take part in the election. The report cites forthcoming research from Anthony Heath that shows nearly 20 per cent of BME voters are not registered to vote – although they have the right to participate – while only 7 per cent of ‘White British’ citizens are not registered.


Richard Darlington, 07525 481 602,

Natalie Cox, 07983 550 377,  


First published: 23 August 2013

<< August