22 February 2014

If We Want To Increase Turnout We Have To Remember Why People Vote

The chances that any one individual vote will make a difference to an election result is almost non existent.

At the last general election, every majority was greater than one. Hardly a surprise. So why should any one individual make the effort? And there is an effort involved. However small you may consider the effort in voting, the effort is much larger than the chances that individual vote will actually "make a difference" to the result.

Obviously there is the rationale "well, if enough people thought like that it would make a difference, a big difference". Indeed. And that thought alone can act as a big incentive to turn out.

When talking about low turnout, usually a lot is made of "apathy", the so called apathetic masses. This of course shifts the blame from those in charge. It lets them off the hook. It's those lazy plebs at fault, not us. In fact the only lazy ones are those using apathy as an excuse.

Think back to the opening paragraph and you can see it is not apathy that makes a person consider their vote worthless, it is rational consideration of the facts.

And this is why any barrier put in the way of registering to vote or the actual process of voting, however small, is going to have a significant effect. And why Individual Electoral Registration could have a massive effect. There are millions registering and turning out who can hardly be bothered at the moment.

So if individual votes are worthless, why do so many individuals actually turnout? Turnout of 50,60,70% or more seems unbelievable for a worthless act.

Of course voting from an individual viewpoint may be worthless, but from a collective point of view it can be far from it.

These are the main reasons why people vote and it may surprise you.


If people vote when they are young they are likely to continue voting. And the more they vote, the more likely they are to vote. And vice versa.

Me and my friends are of an age group that had to wait till we were nearly 23 before we got to vote in our first general election in 1992. Which was a 5 year gap from 1987. The difference this makes is really noticeable in the turnout demographics - something like a 10% drop from those a few months older who got to vote at 18 in 1987. Most of my friends didn't get into the habit of voting when young and so never will.

We must remember the corporate strategy. McDonalds was one of the first companies to target children with its advertising and promotion because they worked out that if you want repeat frequent customers you need to get them into the habit. Get them young. Tobacco companies also know this.

Once people hit their early twenties they have made their mind up about most things. Rarely will people much change their political ideology and that includes whether they bother voting or not.

That is why changes that impact on turnout are so important, because that impact can last generations. It is going to be incredibly hard to break the non voting habit of the younger generations.


Some commentators argue that content people are likely not to vote because they are happy with the status quo. In fact the opposite is the case, content people vote more. And the more society treats you well, whether in status, income, wealth etc, the more fearful you will be that your good life will be taken away. So you vote to keep what you've got. Unhappy people with little to show from society turn out less.


We all know family and close friends influence how you vote but they also influence whether you vote at all. The longer you know someone and the earlier their influence, the more chance you will copy them.


Difficult to imagine how voting can be cool, but when the franchise is first extended, turnout is usually at a high point.


Modern life is full of activities, stuff. Things to do. We have moved on from Harold Wilson asking the BBC to move Steptoe & Son (they refused), but distractions do make a difference. How do we find time to vote?

RACE, CLASS, GENDER of candidates

People are racist, "class"ist and genderist (men more so than women it seems). They vote for people in their own image. Sad but true. See no-one like you and enthusiasm for voting wanes. The under-represented in parliament, turn out less. Which in turn means they are even more under-represented, which leads them to turn out less...and so on. A vicious circle.

IDEOLOGICAL or EMOTIONAL CONNECTION of candidates/party with voter

Politics, charm and good looks. Policies do make a difference, but in a world where trust is in decline generally and particularly of politicians, charm and good looks are getting more important. Charm and good looks however are not enough to restore lost turnout from a disengaged electorate caused by disillusionment at disappointing policies and broken promises.


If you were going to buy a certain item and every advert you saw just slagged off a competitor producing that item. You might decide not to buy at all.

Negative political campaigns reduce turnout. And the longer the negativity goes on, the bigger the impact on turnout.

There is something about politics thats makes negative campaigning so successful.

Unlike in a healthy competitive marketplace, where increased sales drive profit. Politicians can profit just as much by driving down the votes of an opponent as winning votes themselves.


Obviously General elections are more important than local and Euro elections because that is where the power is. Also close elections can drive turnout. We all know the difference between a marginal and safe seat.


Proportional voting can reduce negative campaigning, under-representation of certain groups, devalued votes in safe seats and disillusionment at distorted national results. But it doesn't stop the general decline of turnout completely.


Anything that increases security and accuracy of an election usually comes with a cost.

As I explained at the start, even small barriers to voting can be enough to put people off. The benefits of combating fraud do have to be weighed against the numbers put off voting altogether.


Wherever there is a cost to voting, it needs to be countered with an incentive.

People can have a "moral" problem with voting being anything other than a voluntary duty that people should be willing to perform no matter what the costs and barriers to themselves. As I have already explained, from an individual point of view the incentive to vote is non existent. Yet we all know that it is of huge benefit collectively to us all.

The only way I can see this circle squared is to recognise that people incur costs in voting and recompense them for the good they are doing society by turning out.

A financial allowance set at just enough to compensate for the expense of voting (in time, effort & financial) has the advantage of appealing to those groups who turn out least - the poor. It would be simple and overcome the deterrent barriers of having much more secure election procedures and finally it would work. Turnout would soar if you paid people to turn out.


  1. Fair point.

    Or you could just join Young People's Party, stand as a candidate and vote for yourself :-)

  2. Isn't there a danger that if we financially reward voting then this will encourage fraud?

    If you insist on financially encouraging people (and I think there are other ways to improve engagement, like modernising elections) then why not a discount on council tax - or something similar?