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Should Wales adopt compulsory voting for Senedd elections?

08 Jun 2024 6 minute read
The bridge near the main entrance to the European Parliament

Luke James, Brussels

“Use your vote” is emblazoned in huge blue letters on the bridge that flanks the main entrance to the European Parliament building in Brussels.

European elections, much like those to the Senedd, have been typified by poor turnout caused in part by confusion about the decisions at stake.

The campaign slogan for the latest European polls taking place this weekend is though wasted in Brussels. Not because the residents of the capital of Europe are so fanatical about the institutions, but because, in Belgium, voting is a legal duty, not a choice.

It’s a model that former First Minister Mark Drakeford recently suggested Wales should adopt.

“Many countries around the world, Australia and Belgium to take just two random examples, have that system,” he told BBC Radio Wales last month.

“I believe that casting your vote is something that makes certain that you make your contribution to the future of the place you live.” Former Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price also called for the change last year.

Turnout

At first glance, it seems like a simple choice. Turnout at the last Senedd election has never surpassed 50%. By contrast, participation in the three elections being held in Belgium today – European, federal and regional – will once again be around 90%.

That’s despite the fact that the Belgian authorities stopped enforcing the penalties for nonvoters around two decades ago.

“We have a political culture, a tradition, of compulsory voting, which means people will still go to vote even though there’s no sanction and no incentive,” said Professor Régis Dandoy.
“There’s still social pressure.”

That tradition began in 1893 when the vote was extended to all men over the age of 25. Concerned newly enfranchised and long suffering workers would be more enthusiastic voters than their own supporters, conservatives introduced obligatory voting in an effort to offset the impact of the change.

Today the political consequences vary across the country. In Wallonia, the French-speaking south of Belgium, obligatory voting is perceived as benefiting progressive parties.

“The parties with younger voters, who tend not to vote elsewhere, would lose out if voting was made voluntary,” said Dandoy.

While Wales recently decided that 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote in Senedd and council elections, the Belgian constitutional court recently decided they had to vote in the European elections (although they are still not allowed to vote in the federal and regional polls).

Flanders

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, compulsory voting has been blamed for the high scores achieved by far-right party Vlaams Belang, which is set to become the biggest party in the Flemish parliament and perhaps even the federal parliament.

“Vlaams Belang would lose a lot of votes if voting was no longer compulsory since their voters are anti-politics,” added Dandoy. A study by KU Leuven university estimated a third of their voters would stay at home.

It is for this reason that the Flemish parliament voted recently to scrap obligatory voting for the local elections which will take place in October.

It’s possible the introduction of compulsory voting in Wales could also benefit right-wing parties.

Leave voters

According to the YouGov/Barn Cymru poll published this week, people who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, who are most likely to vote Conservative or Reform UK, are five times less likely to vote in Senedd elections than remainers, who favour Labour and Plaid Cymru.

The last European country to introduce compulsory voting was Bulgaria. There too its proponents had a specific electoral impact in mind.

“We have a specific ethnic party of Bulgarian Turks,” explained Dragomir Stoyanov, an expert in Bulgarian politics at Sussex University. “Some of the parties thought that introducing compulsory voting would be to the disadvantage to the party of the Turks, who have a stable core electorate. They thought that if the turnout increases, the role of this party in Bulgarian political life would decrease.”

However, turnout in Bulgaria has actually fallen since voting was made obligatory in 2016. That’s because the constitutional court struck down plans for penalties for those who did not vote.

“In order for it to function it’s necessary to have some penalties,” said Stoyanov. “A significant part of the population don’t know that they are obliged by law to go and vote. It’s very ineffective.”

Even where there are penalties, they are difficult and expensive to administer. That contributed to compulsory voting being abandoned in the Austrian region of Tyrol in 2004.

“It proved difficult to fine several thousands of people for not complying with this rule, increasingly so because of a decreasing electoral turnout,” explained Karl Kössler of the Institute for Comparative Federalism. “As a result, compulsory voting had become more and more a façade.”

Decline

Turnout has since fallen from 80% to 60% in Tyrol’s regional elections. The decline prompted an opposition party to begin a campaign in 2019 for the introduction of the system.

But Kössler said it has failed to gain ground because of a “more liberal conception of citizenship which regards compulsory voting as an encroachment on people’s personal freedom.”

“It was seen as absurd to prompt citizens to develop a truly democratic mindset through an act of compulsion,” he added.

As well as the practical issues in enforcing compulsory voting, there would clearly also be a risk of a popular backlash similar to that caused by the move to 20mph speed limits.

One option to avoid both would be to incentivise voters rather than sanctioning non-voters, a practice more common in South America.

“In Colombia, if you vote, you receive a certificate which entitles you to half a day paid holiday,” explained Dandoy. “Or you can reduce your military service by one month, apply for grants and subsidies offered by the state: 10% of the cost of your student fees, 10% of the cost of your passport, and so on.”

If Wales did adopt compulsory voting, in whatever form, it would be a rare case of a substate nation having a different policy on the issue to the state of which it is part. It would, said Dandoy, “probably be unique in the world.”

Read more: German far-right leaders defend the SS but aren’t so keen on Wales


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Glen
Glen
8 hours ago

If voting ever became compulsory ballot papers should contain a ‘none of the above’ option.

Rick Bull
Rick Bull
7 hours ago
Reply to  Glen

You already have the option of spoiling the ballot. If a large number actually did this it would send a clear message.

David
David
3 hours ago
Reply to  Glen

If ‘None of the above’ won with the most votes using FPTP then nobody would be elected.

Rick Bull
Rick Bull
7 hours ago

I think this is worth trying once.

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
7 hours ago

I agree, Glen. And let’s make sure we can vote for people, and not be forced to vote for a party. This latter promotes croneyism, which we already have plenty of in Cymru.

Real democracy please! And transparency and accountability…

Steffan Gwent
Steffan Gwent
4 hours ago

Compulsory voting would require compulsory identification. How would the Senedd legislate for that?

Jon_S
Jon_S
4 hours ago

The general public are disengaged with politics as it is, so… I know, let’s make them actively resent the whole shebang by forcing them out to vote.

FWIW, I chose not to vote during the PCC elections because nobody in this constituency actually campaigned. Not one. No leaflets, no adverts, no door to door, nobody in the streets. So I made an informed decision to follow their lead and also not bother.

hdavies15
hdavies15
2 hours ago
Reply to  Jon_S

Waiting to have a party that advocates doing away with PCC jobs. That would be worth voting for.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
5 minutes ago

I’m in favour of compulsory voting, but only alongside proportional representation not while FPTP is still used for elections!

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