On 12 September Australia began voting on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised. This is the first time Australia has carried out a vote or survey entirely using postal voting (with only a handful of exceptions being made for those with extenuating circumstances such as being out of the country or if the person is visually impaired, in which case they were able to vote online). Questions have been raised about whether this method could replace the traditional way of voting at polling stations in the future. Is this something we should consider here in the UK?

Postal voting: one step forward, two steps back?

picture from BBC by Julian Lorkin

Currently in the UK people are expected to vote at their local polling station, and must specifically request if they want to receive their ballot paper in the mail. This works well for those who are busy, or those who are not in their constituency for whatever reason on polling day. But that doesn’t account for all those who don’t make it to the polling station. Surely there will be a correlation between those who cannot be bothered to go out and vote on the day and people who don’t bother to request postal voting forms?

If each eligible (registered) citizen in the UK began to automatically receive a ballot paper in the mail rather than having to register, this would, in theory, solve this problem and increase voter participation. UK voters would no longer have to drag themselves out to the polling stations in the miserable weather on polling day, and therefore people would not be losing anything, whether it be time, effort or the comfort of their own home, by voting. It would also mean that they would not be relied upon to register for postal voting forms in advance.

However, there is a strong argument that this approach might not increase voter turnout, but could in fact have the opposite effect (and that is before we consider the flaws in postal voting itself). We have established that if everyone voted by post, this would reduce what we might call the cost of voting, in other words why someone might be put off. But what about the benefits the individual gains by voting? What drives someone to vote in the first place?

From the point of view of the individual, choosing to vote is in fact fairly irrational. The chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. The only example of a significant election in the UK where someone won by a margin of only one vote was when Conservative MP Henry Duke maintained his seat in the House of Commons by getting 4777 votes to his opponent’s 4776. This is as far back as 1910, which demonstrates just how rare this situation is – surely a rational person, knowing this, would not vote purely on the basis that their vote would change the outcome of an election? And yet, we still vote. Why?

Another reason why people might vote is that we have been brought up to believe that voting is our civic duty, believing that it’s a good thing for society, even if it’s not so good for the individual, and so we feel guilty for not voting. Of course, this is a very morally correct approach, and indeed if everyone took this stance it would be good for society. Perhaps this is the motivation for a lot of voters. But it also leads us onto another reason why people are willing to go out of their way to vote at polling stations, which might not be true for voting by post.

Switzerland, in an attempt to reverse the consistent decline in voter participation across several elections, recently introduced the mail-in ballot. Of course, everyone expected that, now that voting had become so convenient, voter participation would increase substantially. But the exact opposite was true. Voter turnout decreased, especially in smaller cantons (the twenty-six state-like districts that make up Switzerland) and in the smaller communities within cantons. Why is this the case? Why would fewer people vote when the cost of doing so is lowered?

Patricia Funk, a social scientist, explained the outcome of this natural experiment, linking it back to the incentives behind voting. In Switzerland, just like in the UK, “there exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls,” Funk writes. “As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a co-operator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions.” In other words, people might not feel morally obliged to vote, but it is in their own interest to vote to improve or maintain how they are viewed by others.

While postal voting seems like a practical way of removing factors that would discourage people from voting, it also removes at least one factor that might encourage people to vote. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, introducing the mail-in ballot here in the UK would most likely lead to a drop in voter participation.

By Lucy Higginbotham