Making Voting Compulsory (for Young People)

Guy Lodge and Sarah Birch:

Increasing electoral turnout is not just a nice idea, it is something we must actively strive for if elections are to serve the needs of all citizens….So how can we increase rates of electoral participation, particularly among ‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as the young and the poor?

…by far the most effective – albeit controversial – way of boosting participation is to make voting compulsory….Calls for compulsory voting are, however, commonly met with the objection that it is a citizen’s right to choose not to vote…

To allay such fears we propose a more realistic approach which is to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. Voters would be compelled only to turn out – and would be provided with a ‘none of the above’ option. The logic behind this proposal is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible are considerably more likely to vote throughout their lives. Introducing an obligation for new electors to turn out once would thus go a significant way toward breaking the habit of non-voting that often gets passed from generation to generation, and could have a substantial and lasting impact on turnout.

I am going to side-step the normative question of whether turnout should be higher or lower.  For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is a worthy goal and focus my initial thoughts on the likely empirical effect of this plan, with the proviso that this is developed for the UK and I am no expert in British politics.

First, turnout is indeed habit-forming, according to other research by Donald Green, Alan Gerber, and Ronald Shachar (see here and here for summaries).  To quote from the second study, which involved a randomized experiment in New Haven, CT, during the 1998 election:

…voting in 1998 raised the probability of voting in 1999 by 46.7 percentage points.  Other things being equal, registered voters who did not vote in 1998 had a 16.6% chance of voting in 1999, as compared to 63.3% among those who voted in 1998.  By any standard this is a very large effect.

It is.  In the short run, some of that effect will probably decay.  And we don’t really know whether the effect would be as large for young people as for older people.  But still, after years and years of compulsory turnout for young people, the effect is likely to accumulate, relative to a counterfactual world with no such requirement.  I think there is a good chance that the proposal could succeed.

Second, this surge in turnout among the young is going to discomfit many politicians.  Lodge and Birch argue that there won’t be any partisan effects, since politicians of both sides will start to appeal to young people and presumably each party will win an equal number of the new votes of young people.  I am less certain.  The partisanship of young people depends a lot on the prevailing climate when they come of age politically.  The Pew Center put out some data from the U.S. a while back and found “generational differences that reflect the political climate at the time when individuals were forming their political identity and loyalties.”  The appeals of parties and politicians may be less effective than the overall impact of the climate.  So whichever party isn’t doing well among young people when the plan was introduced could easily oppose it for strategic reasons.

Third, if every person were required to vote when they were first legally eligible, I suspect that parties would start targeting young people much earlier in an effort to build party loyalty during adolescence.  Some people might find political appeals to, say, 14-year-olds, problematic.  I am agnostic about that, personally, but I would note that whatever people tend to dislike about political campaigns—negativity, lying, money, etc.—will now be increasingly targeted at minors.

Here is a related study by Sarah Birch.  Previous Monkey Cage posts on compulsory voting are here, here, here, and here.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.