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Friday, 27 July, 2001, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Voter apathy: How can it be overcome?
A range of measures designed to lure voters back to the polls is being proposed by the Electoral Commission.
The commission has investigated why turnout was at an all-time low of 59% in the 2001 general election.
The report suggests a variety of ways to improve the numbers of people voting, including: voting over the internet or by phone, polling over several days; and better funding.
What can be done to improve the situation? Why was voter turnout so low? Would internet voting help improve democracy?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
If you want to have your say, join a political party (there must be one somewhere that approximates to your views) and campaign for PR. If you genuinely don't care, then don't vote, but don't moan either. You surrender your right to complain if you don't take part!
Politicians don't care about the needs of the constituents and consistently ignore the fact that they are elected to be the REPRESENTATIVES of the people, not unilaterally make decisions whether it is in the best interest of the people or not.
Let us not forget that last year, during the gasoline crisis, Blair absolutely refused to lower the exorbitant tax on petrol. The British people pay an incredible amount of taxes on a gallon of petrol, in fact one Canadian couldn't believe his ears when he was charged $200 to fill up his vehicle whilst in Britain! So why should the British people bother to vote? They know full well that one politician is as bad as the next and they have given up hope of having a representative who really cares about their needs.
Voting doesn't work. Look at the clowns we have in power and come to your own conclusions. Look to USA, they have a leader they didn't even vote for! The UK is such a lapdog for Bush. Just goes to show this democracy lark is merely a charade to keep the public under some kind of control (some call it slavery) while the greedy capitalists go about their pillaging of the world. We despise you politicians, I, and many others, certainly wouldn't waste time and the resources to bother voting for puppets like you. We need an alternative... Try listening to the protesters at the G8 summit or anywhere else instead of condemning the very people who have previously supported and believed in you. Times have to change.
I didn't vote because I felt that the Tories are still a spent force and New Labour have proved that promises mean very little to them.
I would be tempted to vote again if there was some kind of accountability in government. Some way the average citizen could actually make their voice heard - other than posting it here.
None of the above? Concerns over our actual sovereignty within Europe? Perhaps you are giving more credit to voters than they deserve for their reason of democratic abstinence. Do you think that if the red top tabloids took more interest in politics than their 12 months silly season of celebrity news and reality TV, then so would the electorate.
There are two measures that would boost turnout:
(1) have elections on Saturdays
(2) Make every vote count.
At the moment in the vast majority of constituencies there really is no point voting because the winner is a foregone conclusion. Mr Blair should act quickly to implement the Jenkins Commission's report which got the balance just right between fairness and stable government.
In five years time the public will be sick of Labour and all vote Conservative to stop them
Mark Dudley, UK
Forcing the apathetic to vote, as Australia does, simply produces knee-jerk voting for looney tune populists like Pauline Hanson, who has major influence on elections here. Better those people stay at home, and let those willing to think through issues properly decide who governs the country.
How can you be forced to vote when we are supposed to live in a democracy? I'll choose whether I vote or not thanks. (I did vote by the way.)
Kevin Isherwood, UK
Give me a real choice to vote for and I will vote. At present I am presented with three versions of the same political philosophy each trying to magnify the miniscule differences between them. None of them represent my views even partially, so why should I give them my vote?
It would be nice to be able to elect someone who wasn't a party drone and who actually had an opinion of their own. I believe it was Michael Foot who said that at Prime Minister's Questions there were so many "planted" questions it might as well have been called "Gardening Questions".
Matt B, UK
The only way the politicians can begin to increase turnout at elections is if they remember that politics is about formulating ideas and selling them to the people rather than governing by focus group and opinion polls. Politicians are there to gain a mandate from the public to set the national agenda. They are not there to weave the aspirations of the public into a web of deceptive presentation. Tony Benn, a seasoned campaigner, admitted that he decided to leave Parliament to get back to practising politics. The poor turnout confirmed this view, running roughshod over attempts to make voting more accessible. The public haven't become lazy, the politicians have. A severe cultural shift is therefore required at Westminster.
As long as the electoral system encourages campaigns targeted at Middle England, turnout will drop.
Parliament itself is undemocratic and predictable because of the whipping system. More debates should be 'free vote' or at least open for freer discussion, with MPs promoting local discussion and phone-ins to gauge local opinion. Why not a national debate about public services, NHS, railways etc, with people helped and encouraged to take part and be listened to? It wouldn't be a bad idea to resurrect the public meeting.
Ross, Scotland, UK
Voting in Australia is compulsory and therefore voter turnout is extremely high. Despite being forced to register a vote (by the promise of a fine), people here take voting seriously and there is a sense of duty to polling day. We might not like who we get into government, but at least the choice is more representative of the people than can be possible with the appallingly low voter turnout that you have in the UK, and worse, the USA.
Those who don't vote shouldn't have their say on what happens to their country. But let's have an apathy box on the voting slip.
Richard Harris, UK
Redesigning ballot papers to allow abstentions would be an excellent step. Since the birth of new Labour, I believe that a sizeable portion of their core support have taken to not voting as they feel that there is no longer a credible party that supports their views.
I feel that substantial investment needs to be made in educating people about the voting system. So many people see no link between a cross on a ballot paper and the size of their children's classes or how long they have to wait for an NHS operation. We need to understand the importance of having a vote, how we are doing ourselves a disservice by not using it, and how fortunate we are to live in such a well-established democracy. This must be highlighted as a separate issue to how corrupt politicians are. Inadequate politicians should not result in the squandering of a democratic right.
Is the low turnout due to apathy, or do voters genuinely not want to vote for any of the candidates on offer? What about adding a "None of the above" box at the bottom of the ballot paper? Then if you don't like any of the candidates on offer, you can still at least register a 'vote'.
So many people have said in this forum that their vote doesn't count - why has no one mentioned proportional representation? This would remove the overriding power of the political party in government, by forcing many small parties to cooperate with each other, producing common-sense legislation on issues that matter. It would also mean that no one party had a monopoly in Parliament or in an election, meaning that every single vote cast in the country would count.
Proportional representation would reintroduce the concept of individual constituency MPs, not pawns moved by party whips, and would make 'de-election' a real possibility by increasing the range of options on the ballot paper. If that wouldn't make politicians sit up and take notice of the electorate, then what would?
Why should I bother to vote when the politicians never keep to the promises in their manifestos? It's just a case of whose lies I believe in the most. I'd like to see parties sued for breach of promise in order to persuade them in future to offer something they can actually deliver!
Dave, Luton, UK
Governments, and this one in particular, are criticised for not listening to the people and for taking too much notice of opinion polls and focus groups. Both can't be true, so perhaps we are expecting too much from government. And the "no difference" argument doesn't really wash does it? People have ALWAYS complained about that, even when there were obvious differences. Remember what happened to Labour in 1983, when there was perhaps the biggest difference between the two main parties since 1945? They got annihilated.
The fact is that many Tories could not bring themselves to vote last time and we all know whose fault that was. At least nobody here is arguing for electoral reform (PR etc), because if it's true that voter apathy is affecting all Western democracies - and therefore voting systems - PR wouldn't make a scrap of difference.
Britain has a long history of a two party system (or two and a half counting the Lib-Dems)which deliberately keeps minority parties out of parliament through the "first past the post" system. The only way to introduce a wider spectrum of political opinions into the parliament is to introduce "Proportional Representation". People do not vote as they know their party of choice has no chance of winning a seat. Tony Blair has said that the introduction of PR would be dangerous as little parties gain too much influence and pointed to the example of Germany where the Green Party is in government. How an elected party can be described as dangerous I do not understand.
And of course there is the House of Lords which is totally unelected and will now be replaced by an appointed committee selected by the government. Until Britain will give up its elitist rule people will continue to feel as the "underdog" who can't change anything anyway and turnouts will continue to fall.
The reason why people do not see the point in voting is that New Labour has embraced the selfsame ideologies as their predecessors as well as being guilty of inaction on countless issues. When we have a political party who will make the rich pay their fair share of tax, close the tax-dodging loopholes, increase pay for teachers, the police, nurses and other public sector workers, invest in the NHS, invest in transport, clean the litter off the streets, make an effort to get to grips with crime, cut the number of empty council and housing association properties - and they wonder why voter turnout was low at the last election?
Just look at the last election, there was no proper debate on the real issues with many politicians on both sides were kept safely out of the way by their spin doctors. Is it any wonder the public lost interest? Four weeks of constant sound bites, spin and rent a quote. The only time we had real debate was when things got out of control and real people accidentally came face to face with the politicians.
I did not vote in the last election but certainly would have done if it had been easier to do so. Apart from the rolling register and encouragement of postal (both token gestures), the voting process has not kept up with the "convenience" culture that we live in today. Supermarkets have revolutionised how we shop; the internet and computing in general has revolutionised how we research information; increased car ownership has revolutionised our transport. No such sweeping changes have been introduced to polling processes, despite the technology being available. If institutions do not evolve to be more accessible and available to people, then they are eventually abandoned.
As a candidate [Lib-Dem] can I say how depressing all your comments are? I strongly believe that if we had the Irish style transferable vote system, people would be more interested. You would be able to vote 220.127.116.11. regardless of party if you wanted. Placing pro hanging, anti Europe, pro gay rights or anti fox hunting candidates higher up. It would end the safe seat mentality that ruins our political system.
Why should it be considered necessary to persuade people to vote who can't otherwise be bothered?
When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies people, especially the young, were becoming very much aware of political issues, how they might affect theirs and others' lives. It was a badge of pride to be aware.
Now people are only too happy to say, "I'm not interested in politics". That's equivalent to saying that I'm indifferent to the processes which help create the society I live in, whether we are in harmony or turmoil, poverty or well-being, etc., etc.
I reckon this change is more to do with the lack of education in the political process, and the individual's pursuit of material wealth which would be embarrassed by the truth of their selfishness.
If it doesn't affect them, they don't give a damn.
Young people know very little about what a vote means, why and how they come to have one and how to cast one. The most telling story from the General election was about two 18 year olds who sent in postal vote because they did not know that there was any other way to vote. Kids are going through the whole school system without discovering the existence of polling stations - so it is hardly surprising they think voting is irrelevant.
By the time the election was called, I was too late to register on the electoral roll for the town where I recently moved to. Surely the dinosaurs who work for the local councils can speed up this process? They had 4 weeks to process my registration and send me a polling card but apparently this is not enough time.
There is a dangerous assumption made when the idea of everybody voting on everything is touted. Not everyone is knowledgeable enough to make well-informed decisions on many aspects of policy. Why should they be? People may have an opinion on many things but casual opinions are often groundless and flawed when examined closely. Politicians are supported by a large army of civil servants and expert consultants whose job it is to supply knowledgeable advice and support decision-making. In addition, politicians are employed full-time to consider the issues, make decisions and take responsibility for them. To go down the referenda route is highly unadvisable. Ill-informed and potentially disastrous policies could be made and implemented, if anything gets done at all.
As a relatively young person (23) I am very disappointed with all the political parties. I've watched this country go down hill, we pay over the odds for everything and all the parties seem to have the same agendas. Why should I vote for people who don't stand for anything I believe in?
Labour want the euro - I don't. Conservatives - well they are too right wing in my opinion. Lib-Dems - more interested in being popular than practical.
Do any of these people deserve my vote?
If my vote appeared to count, then I would be encouraged to vote again. Locally a spate of tactical voting, to ensure that the Conservatives or New Labour didn't get in, meant the re-election of an unpopular choice. On a general vote, make it compulsory, and forcing people to vote won't work. Make it compulsory for the elected to stick to their election promises instead of reporting of a lack of funds prevents us from¿¿
Perhaps I'll vote when I don't have to decide which candidate is less evil.
We are in a non-stop voting system. Governments today rely on market research to establish policy. They give us what we want. There is no real vision and no real leadership. It's knee-jerk politics. I wasn't much of a Thatcherite, but at least she provoked a strong reaction for or against. She was the last leader England had.
Jane Berry, UK (Living in USA)
I'm astonished the Electoral Commission is considering such insecure
technologies as internet and phone votes. The scholarly research and
practical experience of such systems concludes they have not and
will not work securely or reliably. It's better to have widespread
voter apathy than massive uncorrectable fraud in the voting process.
The ancient Greeks had a great system. Not only could you vote somebody into office, but, also to remove them. Give people the option to get rid of the unpopular and incompetent and watch people return to the polling booth in droves.
All these little changes are helpful but the real problem relates to democracy or the tangible lack of it. This is especially evident for local elections. Most people do not understand how local decisions are made especially related to planning and health.
John Atkins, England
When we have openness, honesty and integrity in politics then we will see a return to the polls. Unfortunately, though it is in times like these when those with a hidden agenda can do so much damage due to the apathy of others.
Why should people need to be encouraged to vote? If they cannot be bothered to vote, it probably means they either don't care or are less informed about the issues. Why should we even want that group of people to vote?
A. Keating, UK
Only when we have a committed crop of politicians who will fulfil their poll promises made during electioneering, will the common man be interested in voting for this or that party. Today's politicians, unfortunately, are basically a selfish lot who are only interested in the plums of office and therefore naturally relegate the problems of the voters to the background. Unless politicians free themselves from being selfish and learn to genuinely work for the welfare of their constituencies, voters will continue to be apathetic towards politics.
Why not follow the practice adopted in Australia and other countries? Make voting compulsory, with fines payable by those who refuse.
Stephen Horscroft, Cornwall, UK
The voter turnout might improve in the 20 to 35 age-bracket if the politicians realised that it's what the politicians stand for that turns the young voters away - their pathetic attempts to 'Help the environment', 'Poverty and third world debt' and 'drugs'. If they approached it with a real sense of urgency and from a real-world perspective, not the usual political fashion of vote-bartering, then maybe younger voters will feel there's something worth fighting for and therefore voting for! But, with the likes of Bush Jr in the world, there ain't much hope of that!
I don't think that there is enough education. Forthcoming generations of voters are not being taught the importance of voting or how a government works, or the economics of the policies that are being made. If they don't understand it, or have no concept of the role of an individual in this process, then people don't appreciate the part they have to play and are not qualified to make an educated decision. And then don't bother to vote!
And as for the rubbish that's talked about the duty of all citizens to vote - this argument invariably begins, 'People fought and died for the right to vote'. Leaving aside the dubious veracity of this statement, people fought and died in the Crusades too. Does this mean I should feel obliged to embrace their religion? People have fought and died (and voted!) for all manner of foolish ideologies throughout history.
I think a review of the registration system is also needed. Like David Howe having moved in the spring, I followed all instructions given on the TV adverts, spent far too long on the phone to the local council only to discover I was not registered anywhere on election day. I suppose it cancelled out the previous general election where I received cards for all three of my (temporary) addresses I had had through the preceding year - all in the same constituency as well!
Our whole political organisation currently only serves those with financial interests in the running of this country. When this VITALLY important issue is put behind us, we'll start to see some progress being made in policies that will actually be written to serve the voters, not the needs of the rich.
I agree with you all, in that there is no choice. This is largely because we who do not agree with the listed candidates, are reluctant to dabble in politics ourselves. As there is such a large number of people who need representation, maybe there should be some sort of debate leading to the formation of new political parties.
Owen, Suffolk, UK
And you folks criticise America's last election!
The point of an election in a democracy is for people to have power over government policy. Since all major parties believe in the same right wing policies, voting in another government does not change policies. People recognise that their votes are therefore a waste of time.
Sam Routledge, UK, hit the nail on the head. Nobody would expect to get a bank statement once every 5 years would they? Politics has to be spilt along lines of ISSUES not PARTIES. Any non-economic question should be subject to the public, given enough interest (by petition?). Imagine involvement with votes on fox-hunting and capital punishment. Why should a privately educated elite - who have no experience of relying on the "commonwealth" of a health society take such decisions for us? The only way to hasten this is NOT to vote. Simple.
With all the talk about voter apathy before the election, I decided that I really ought to try and do my bit. Why bother, it has finally dawned on me. I am not voting for the best qualified individuals to lead the country into prosperity but offering the prize of a comfortable career to the least deserving members of society.
If voting could change the system it would be illegal.
A letter in the Guardian once said we don't live in a democracy, we live in a benign oligarchy. I think that about sums it up
I find this great thing called "democracy" a bit of a joke in truth. As far as I can see I have two choices both of which are opposed to my own personal philosophy on life (libertarian). Now if I did vote and the person I voted for got into power they would then go off and do whatever they want to do regardless of my views. How am I empowered through this process? Its like giving me a choice of two horses to ride neither of which will pay the slightest attention to my wishes. In the end either beast is as good as the other in that both are equally useless to me.
Regarding choosing the options available, there are some genuine candidates. There are differences between the parties. Some are bad, and some are very bad indeed, so it is a matter of least worst option. But there again, isn't that the same as choosing a job or a house or a drink in a trendy bar or even a partner? Despite this, it's nice to see the voters of Glasgow Maryhill got the apathy about right. The Conservatives finished fifth.
People are becoming more aware that true democracy is being lost. Governments no longer have the power - it is corporations that dictate policy. Whether the policies are minor ones (like tobacco advertising) or major ones (like re-nationalisation of the railways) the governments' hands are tied by private money. Why vote for a government that can't, or won't, do anything.
Why should people bother to vote when the government does not listen to the people it represents? There is a growing number of disparate groups coming together to protest against the government's handling of such issues as third world debt, the environment and world economic policy. Instead of opening up dialogue or showing genuine interest for the concerns being raised by these people, they are subdued and made to feel like criminals for using their democratic outlet of demonstrating their feelings. The party's agenda's focused on the same staid topics such as education and health. Much of the same election promises with more money pledged to move to this service or the other. When the government shows a commitment for real change and initiative, perhaps the people will be motivated. Government apathy equals voter apathy. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself not to vote...
On the ballot paper include the extra box "None of the above are fit to run the country" and you will see a sharp rise in the election turnout.
Sharon B, UK
The reason why so few people voted in the last election was because the outcome was obvious. With such a weak opposition, there was never any doubt that Labour would win. I don't think it really has much to do with any other reason as the majority of people live within easy access of a polling station and it's hardly a difficult job to put a cross in a box. If it had been a close-run battle between three strong parties, then there's little doubt that the turnout would have been higher.
I haven't voted in local or national elections for around 15 years. It's not because I'm apathetic, because at every election I ensure I read, listen and view as much as I can about the various parties and what they stand for. But when it comes to the day I usually can't be bothered. Why? Because I would not be voting FOR something, I would be voting for the least-worst package.
Sam Routledge, UK
It's not just apathy. There is at least 10% worth of protest against globalisation amongst other things.
I think the limited number of posts on this topic says it all. Politics has become boring because the power to effect change has gone.
Why not have a lottery based on voting, sort of like a prize draw. Everyone who votes has the chance to win 10 million pounds - that would probably overcome the apathy.
Everyone knew what the result was going to be long before election day. There was only one party in the 'race'. The economy was doing well and everyone had the 'feel good' factor. The country needs an effective opposition - either the Tories or the Lib Dems. That will probably occur when the recession comes and unemployment goes sky high again. Taxes will increase and public spending will have to be cut.
Voting on the internet or by phone? Just gimmicks!!
Mark R, UK
The simple fact of the matter is that no one wants to vote for any of the current political parties with their mix of sleaze, stupidity and incompetence. There should be a 'none of the above' option to allow the voter to register his/her dissatisfaction with the candidates standing.
Well at the last general election I did not vote. Was this voter apathy? No!
Having filled out various local and national forms when I moved into my new abode, including the electoral register, I thought that I would've actually received a voting card.
Afraid not. I was left with no card and no idea where my new polling station is now I've moved. I contacted the people now living in my old house and they had not received it either.
I think the best way to get the voters back to the voting booth is to have sincere politicians who stand by what they say so that voters feel that their contribution to the democratic process is taken seriously.
Dave, Manchester, UK
What's the point when our elected politicians are overruled by Europe?
There's no point voting for a "puppet government".
While I believe that voting in a democracy is a sacred duty, it goes against the whole principal of a free society to force people to vote! The point is, people will only vote when they feel that the issues on the table are important enough. However, with the West enjoying unprecedented wealth and general comfort, most people (apparently) simply don't care what their politicians do as long as they don't radically change the status quo or rock the boat too much. As soon as there is a downturn, or their quality of life is threatened, they'll be out in droves again! Upon reflection, this is not a bad formula!
Tinkering with the actual process of voting is not addressing the crux of the matter. People do not abstain from voting because they might find it difficult or inconvenient; they do not vote because they do not feel that their vote counts.
In the last general election all the main parties were fighting over the centre ground, with very little in terms of radical or visionary policies. Even the economic policies of the three main parties were practically identical with something like a 1-2% difference in spending plans, which is swallowed by the margin of error in those very spending plans. So, what choice was there? So, why should anyone choose?
24 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Report tackles voter apathy
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