The Democratic Turnout ‘Problem’



A number of authors, including Lijphart, Hill and Engelen, have recently advocated compulsory voting. While numerous justifications can be given for such measures, it is often said that they are necessary to realise democracy fully, for instance ensuring that everyone casts one vote (no more and no less). This argument rests on the commonly held assumption that low turnout is a problem for democracies – a claim that the present article resists. I argue that democracy as it should be understood requires only that citizens have the opportunity to exercise power. I show that the right to vote can be valuable, even if it is not actually exercised. Leaving people to decide for themselves whether or not to vote is not only more liberal but democratic in so far as it respects their choices and makes it more likely that decisions are made by the relevant constituency. Although voluntary voting makes it likely that different groups will be unequally represented, this is not necessarily a problem; where some are more affected by a given decision there may be good democratic reasons to allow them more influence. Disproportionality can be bad where it exacerbates existing social disadvantage, but here the problem is the social disadvantage, rather than that people do not vote. Moreover, while universal turnout ensures proportionality, the problem of disproportionality is conceptually distinct from low turnout. There may be other reasons to favour higher turnout, including a concern to promote social justice, but it is not necessarily better on democratic grounds.