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Why is there so much voter apathy?

There are multiple reasons why many people do not vote. Accordingly, a range of remedies are needed. In certain circumstances, not bothering to vote can be rational. My correspondence with a school pupil.


Posted 3 March 2019

I regularly speak at schools for the charity Speakers for Schools.

On 5 October 2018 I addressed about 100 year 11 (aged 15-16) pupils at Salford City Academy. There is a short write up on their website "Year 11 Students Work Out The Sum For Success With Top Mathematician."

A couple of months later, in mid-December, I received an email from one of the pupils who had been in the audience. It was easy for him to do that, since Googling my name immediately finds my website, and my “Contact me” page gives an email address.

He asked me four questions for a citizenship project that he was working on. I was happy to help him by sharing my thoughts, as I am quite concerned by the level of apathy amongst voters in Britain and many other countries.

His questions, and my responses, are set out below, verbatim.

Question 1: What do you think are the main causes of voter apathy?

Apathy is of course a state of mind. While it can be measured by asking people in surveys, I have not looked for any attitudinal survey data.

Much more immediately available are statistics on voter turnout. These show that even in general elections, UK voter turnout is well below 100%, and lower still in parliamentary by-elections. It is also relatively low in local council elections.

There are several potential causes of low voter turnout.

Living in safe seats

Many people live in parliamentary constituencies where the overwhelming majority of the electorate in that constituency support one particular party consistently. For example, I live in the constituency of Manchester Gorton which has elected Labour members of Parliament continuously since 1906 apart from one four-year period.

See "Manchester Gorton (UK Parliament constituency)" on Wikipedia.

As a member of the Conservative Party, I am aware that casting my vote in parliamentary elections is essentially futile, since it is almost certain that the Labour candidate will win. I do actually vote, as a matter of principle, but I am not a typical citizen.

In practice, the only logical reason for Conservative Party supporters living in Manchester Gorton to vote in parliamentary elections is to provide a small psychological boost to national Conservative Party morale by adding one vote to the party’s national vote tally which will of course be measured in the tens of millions.

I would also expect, at the margins, some Labour Party supporting voters living in Manchester Gorton to not bother to vote on the grounds that they can be relatively confident that even without their individual vote the Labour Party candidate will be elected. Of course, if all Labour supporters in Manchester Gorton behave that way, the Labour candidate would lose!

While I have not carried out any research for the purposes of this response, I am relatively confident that in general elections the average turnout rate in constituencies that are known from previous results and from any local polling to be competitive constituencies will be higher than it is in safe seats.

Voting can be inconvenient

Voting in UK elections takes place on a Thursday, which is normally a working day for most people. Accordingly, there is limited time before leaving for work or after returning from work in which people can vote. At the margins, this can lead to some people not casting their vote because it is inconvenient.

I would give relatively limited weight to this factor since about a decade or so ago it became possible for all citizens to have a postal vote without needing to give reasons for wanting one. Since then, I have always voted by post. Having a postal vote eliminates the inconvenience factor.

Nevertheless, there will be some citizens who are not so engaged in politics as to always register for a postal vote but who would have voted if, on polling day, voting had been more convenient.

Belief that voting does not really matter

In my opinion, this is the cause of low voter participation that should give us most concern.

Again, I have not looked for any data. However, I do believe that a very high proportion of citizens who do not vote also believe that their votes do not matter, not simply because they live in a safe seat dominated by the other political party, but because they feel disconnected from the way that our country is governed, do not regard elections as important, and indeed do not consider that it matters who governs the country.

Such attitudes, to the extent that they exist, are seriously troubling and harmful to the health of our democracy.

Question 2: Why do you think people don't feel voting is as important as it actually is?

As indicated above, I regard this as the most serious question in this enquiry. Leaving aside the question of living in a safe seat dominated by the other party, many people really do not believe that their vote matters.

There are several potential causes.

Being one of 70,000 voters in a constituency

When there are millions of people voting in the country, and approximately 70,000 people eligible to vote in your constituency, it is easy to convince yourself that your individual vote does not matter. Many citizens are generally unaware of how narrow the margin of victory can be in some elections.

Nevertheless, even in constituencies with historically small majorities, voter turnout is never anywhere near 100%.

Who governs does not matter

I also believe that many citizens feel no connection between their personal lives and the identity of the government. They do not accept that the quality of their schools, their hospitals, their future employment prospects, price levels in the shops, future pension levels, will be affected by whether the country has a government formed by the Labour Party or the Conservative Party.

While it is difficult for those who are very politically engaged, such as me, to appreciate that citizens can really have the above attitude, I believe that many do and that this is a key cause of low voter participation.

Everything is decided by an elite and ordinary citizens are helpless

This is a slightly different attitude to the one discussed in the previous section. People with this attitude do believe that government makes a difference to their lives.

However, they regard both major governing parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, as being more or less identical, constituted by an elite, and people who will do what they want to do regardless of how citizens feel or vote.

This feeling of helplessness is widespread not just in the UK but in other European democracies and the USA and is a key cause of the phenomenon known as “populism” which rails against unelected elites who it accuses of ignoring the will of the people.

There is a term in psychology known as “locus of control.” Having an inner locus of control means that you believe that fundamentally what happens to you in your life is a result of what you do and the decisions that you make. Having an outer locus of control means that you believe that your outcomes in life will be either random or determined by the actions of other people and are not under your own personal control.

My expectation is that if detailed research were carried out on people who have the view about governments discussed in this section, it would find that such people predominantly had an outer locus of control.

Question 3: What do you think can be done in order to increase voter turnout?

Many things can be done. Some are easy, while some are very hard. I have tried to rank them, putting first those which are easiest.

Move voting to Sundays

This would be a very straightforward change. It would make it much easier for people to vote in person. The only opposition I would expect is from those government employees would need to supervise Sunday voting and from the Christian “Keep Sunday special” lobby.

Make voting legally mandatory

This would be politically challenging as there would be an outcry from some parts of the electorate, while there is no strong campaign from any other part of the electorate asking for this change.

The concept is not completely outlandish. Voting is for example compulsory in Australia and there may well also be other countries where voting is compulsory.

Introduce the alternative vote system

This would involve introducing the preferential voting system that was the subject of a national referendum in 2011 when it was rejected.

[For more information see my page "The Alternative Vote Referendum: why I will vote YES."]

The reason why this system would increase voter turnout is that it would dramatically reduce the number of safe seats. Far more constituencies would become competitive if preferential voting took place; essentially all constituencies where the sitting MP currently does not have more than 50% of the electors voting for him or her. Even in such constituencies, there would be much more interest in casting votes for candidates from other political parties.

Making this change is much more challenging than the first two because it would change electoral outcomes. The likelihood is that it would reduce the number of Conservative and Labour Party MPs elected and increase the number of MPs elected from the Liberal Democrat party and possibly other parties.

Accordingly, this is not likely to be proposed by either a Conservative government or a Labour government. The 2011 referendum only took place because of the circumstances of the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition.

More education

Thinking more long-term, much more can be done by the educational system. The teaching of citizenship in our schools is very weak, as the subject is a “poor relation” compared with the subjects included in the so-called English baccalaureate.

However, having real elections within schools, for example to choose the school head boy or head girl would be worthwhile.

More important would be better teaching of history including looking at pairs of countries such as South Korea and Pakistan. Doing so makes it vividly clear just how big a difference the quality of government makes to the lives of a country’s citizens over the long term.

For more on this, see my website page "Why citizens need to vote - the quality of government really matters."

Question 4: Do you feel that enough is being done to address this issue?


Having a low turnout of voters combined with getting out your party’s “core vote” can be a winning strategy for political parties. Accordingly, I am not aware of any serious discussion in either of the two main political parties regarding measures that would increase voter turnout.

However, I do not wish to put too much blame on the political parties. It is always too easy to put blame on others.

If someone is ignorant, the main blame for their ignorance rests with them, rather than with other people, when they live in a society where opportunities to learn are widespread and readily available with limited cost. If an individual watches reality TV instead of watching a good quality current affairs TV programme, that is a choice that they have made, and they need to accept responsibility for that choice in the form of their greater ignorance and political apathy.

However, I believe that both parents and the educational system do have a responsibility to bring up children so that they understand the importance of personal success and that achieving such success requires making good choices rather than bad choices.


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