Why we must get motivated to conquer voter apathy


by Rona Mackay

In one week’s time it will be all over bar the shouting.  But will almost half of the population who couldn’t be bothered to get up off the sofa and vote on the day it was decided who should govern Scotland shout if they don’t like the result?

Probably.  Because the sad fact is that those people who say “none of them are getting my vote, they’re all the same” are often the ones who shout the loudest when things don’t go their way.

Are we to assume that 48% of the population don’t care about the country they live in, don’t care about whether their council tax is frozen, don’t care whether we still have a health service, in fact, don’t give a damn about anything at all?

There’s the conundrum – most of them do, but bizarrely they don’t use their hard-fought democratic right to vote to have their say.  They don’t have to agree with everything in the manifesto of their choice, but surely by process of elimination they can cast their vote in favour of one candidate and with their second vote for their preferred party?

There’s no doubt that one of the many challenges facing every political party is getting the vote out.  The public is teased, cajoled and bombarded with campaigning for at least six weeks before polling day, but still half the population don’t bother to vote.  The experts can theorise till the cows come home about the reasons for this, but I’ve yet to hear a constructive plan on how to deal with the situation.

One way to conquer apathy is to make voting compulsory in Scotland, or at least explore the issue.  There are currently 32 countries operating a compulsory voting system, all with different legislative clauses.  These are: Austria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Fiji, France (Senate only), Gabon, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nauru, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Switzerland (Schaffhausen) Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay.

Prior to 1924 when compulsory voting was introduced in Australia, turnout was not much lower than ours is now – 47%. These days it hovers around 94-96%.  Proponents of this system argue that it forces people to become more politically aware, to take even a marginal interest in who they are endorsing and the issues they stand for, which can surely only be a good thing.  It also ensures that a larger proportion of the population are actually represented in government.

Opponents of this legislation say it runs a cart and horses through our civil rights, that we should retain the freedom of choice of whether to vote or not.  A valid point perhaps, but is it such an infringement when we already have to fill in the census, report for jury duty, pay taxes, et al?  There is also an argument that the so-called “donkey vote” increases by around 2%, with people either spoiling their paper or sticking their cross beside a name just to avoid being fined, but a few more braying donkeys might be a small price to pay if it makes more people politically active.

However, if compulsory voting is a step too far, there are things we could do to improve the situation.  Voting in Australia takes place on a Saturday or Sunday, postal and pre-poll voting is in operation and mobile voting booths are taken to hospitals and care homes.

Then there is the gender imbalance in voting.  Getting more women voters out – and interested in politics – is paramount for all parties.  In 2007, male membership in the SNP was 66 per cent and an additional 3 per cent swing in the list vote could have been achieved if as many women as men had voted.

Before the Scottish Parliament dissolved, only 43 of the 129 MSPs were women, just 33%.  Some work to be done there. Surely 52% of the population should have a considerably bigger influence than that.

Interestingly, a current online discussion on Mumsnet.com, a popular parenting website, shows a large number of women in favour of compulsory voting, a sign that perhaps the time for change is imminent.

One encouraging development since devolution is that young people are becoming more politically active.  Last month, 12 new members of the Scottish Youth Parliament were elected via local authorities by more than 30,000 under-18 voters from across Scotland.  Another sign that lowering the voting age might be a viable option.

These days all political party campaign HQs rave about their hi-tech voter ID systems, aimed at identifying their voters and getting them out.  But is that really such an effective practice?  Shouldn’t we be identifying people who can’t or won’t vote to make our electoral system work better?

One thing’s for sure, the turnout at next week’s election will be examined closely after the results come in.  We should never take democracy for granted – we have to work at it.

After next Thursday, we will have five years to work on getting people motivated and interested enough to participate in the next election – for democracy’s sake and for Scotland’s future, we should strive to make that happen.