At the time of a General Election, somebody usually asks, "wouldn't it be good if it was made compulsory for everybody eligible to vote in the UK to do so?" It has been the subject of a recent forum on the BBC, to which there was a mixed response.
Compulsory voting would be a bad and undemocratic idea for four reasons.
First and foremost, ballot box refuseniks do not vote either because they cannot be bothered, because they do not know or care anything about politics or political parties, because they oppose what all the parties stand for, or because they are practically unable to vote. If voting became compulsory, apathy, ignorance, opposition and incapacity would not suddenly vanish. Anybody in the first three categories would be forecefully marched down to the polling station, and made to vote for a party they didn't know about, didn't care about, or hated. They may spoil their paper or, more likely, they would vote at random. This would seriously distort the results arising from considered, deliberate and enthusiastic votes.
Secondly, it is democratically useful to know when a government has been elected with a small number of votes. In 2005, Blair was elected by a smaller proportion of the eligible electorate than any Prime Minister in recent history. However much he ducked the issue, Parliament and the electorate could not ignore the apathy and/or opposition to the government. If we know that few people are voting, there is at least a possibility of doing something about it.
Thirdly, voting in an election is not the only form of democratic activity. Signing petitions, campaigning, going on strike, protesting (and counter-protesting) - all are ways of registering opinion. If voting was made compulsory, consideration would have to be given to mandating these activities too.
Fourthly, compulsory voting is profoundly undemocratic in a First Past the Post system. Some of the opinion polls this week suggest that the Lib Dems could win the highest proportion of the vote,yet be the smallest party in the Commons, and that Labour could come third in the percentages and be the largest party in the House. Each vote does not carry an equal value - compulsory voting would only compound this.
I shall write about something other than the General Election soon - promise.