Make Absentions Count?

I’m usually quite sceptical of a lot of the schemes you read about on tinternet for solving our problems with democracy in this country, but this idea is at least worth debating:

I want to see political parties get penalized for a low electoral turn out. In other words, if we are fed up with them to the back teeth, I want to make our voting abstentions count. My proposal is somewhere along these lines:

If the national turnout at a general election is lower than 60%, then the next general election must be called within 4 years.

If the national turnout at a general election is lower than 55%, then the next general election must be called within 3 years.

If the national turnout at a general election is lower than 50%, then the next general election must be called within 2 years.

If enough people like this idea, then we have a hope of getting it through. As a suggestion, you could visit and ask your elected MP what they think of this idea. My guess is they probably will not like it! So maybe someone out there can think of other ways to push for it.

Not sure I’d have all those different tiers, but the basic idea has appeal. What does the panel think?


  1. Hi James, thanks for starting this. Just a note to say I thought of this idea off the top of my head a few days ago. I don’t know if anything similar exists anywhere else in the world, but I think this would be good for democracy. For example if we ended up with 2 political parties as the only choices and we did not either of like them, at least we would have the option of shortening their time in office.

    The scales were just off the top of my head, but now that you have made me think, how about a continuous sliding scale? For example, 0% turnout – 0 days in office (would not happen in practice obviously). x% or above (70%?) full term in office.

    The sliding scale would mean that everyones “no” vote would count. And if we ever were offered 2 really bad choices, the people could show them the door very soon. I can even imagine NO campaigns…

    Interestingly, I also discovered that the people who wrote are, and they also wrote and interestingly a site called which has similar aims to my pledge. I have therefore emailed the team who wrote that site and asked them to sign!

    By the way this is my first blog comment – I hope I have not broken any rules! Cheers

  2. Isn’t there a danger of distortion when voters decide their party’s going to lose, and they can achieve more by sitting at home and shortening the government’s term than by actually voting against it? Result would be that you had a lopsided parliament even though it wouldn’t last as long.

  3. Some countries have a mechanism whereby if turnout isn’t X%, the whole election has to be rerun. But what I like about your idea is that a low turnout is a hurdle but doesn’t actually stop government.

  4. Interesting idea. I wonder if there are any negative implications.

    BTW, the link to the pledge page is broken. You need to remove the “x” from “xhref”.

  5. On a slightly less serious note, might this not lead to a particularly vicious negative feedback loop? Frequent elections lead to voter fatigue leads to falling turnout leads to more frequent elections …

  6. My objection would be Paul’s. Would it not make more sense for any taxpayer funding of political parties – “Short” money or anything that comes out of the current review – to be related to the proportion of the electorate who support them in general elections, rather than the proportion of those who turn out to vote?

  7. Paul and Patrick may have a point. But there again would political leaders then have to take it upon themselves to appeal to the electorate to vote, and present themselves in such a manner that people actually want to vote for them, and want to see them in office for a long time?

    Perhaps also it would be better not to have such a low period as 2 years max, at least not to start with anyway. If for example we have a minimum of 4 years in office as shortest time for an experimental period. Let’s suppose people can’t be bothered to vote. OK, so we have an election every 3 or 4 years, that is not a major catastrophe. But they can have longer if they take the trouble to be nice to us!

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just bung these figures into a compuer model to play around with and choose the best option… 🙂

  8. OK, looking for problems deliberately.

    First is the iregularities and innacuracies on the register. I have, in the past, been perfectly legally registered at three different addresses (my parents, my current student accommodation, my previous student accommodation). Ergo, while I voted, I also counted as 2 abstentions? People can register anywhere they can claim residence, students are regularly registered at home and at college, as are businessment who work away, etc.

    Then you’ve got things like Torbay council famously managing to get a lot of dead people still on the register years later, etc. The register, last I looked at numbers, can be up to 10% out. How do you take that into account?

    Second is I dislike elections held too quickly regardless, and if they’re too close together, so-called “voter fatigue” can kick in.

    I’d prefer to see a change int he electoral system to encourage each vote to count, currently “safe” seats regularly have very low turnout as the votes simply aren’t needed. Make every vote count, then see if apathy remains a problem. If it is, then perhaps consider this.

  9. There will be problems I am sure. But as a general trend, the more people that vote, the less the party are penalised and vice versa. The other thing is, should there be a “none of the above” on the ballot paper? Problems of accuracy aside, should this count for two abstention points etc etc.

    I notice on this website there is a link to, which encourages people to vote. I am all for people voting, but I do not want them to vote for what they see is the lesser of two evils. No real democracy should force someone to vote for someone they do not want. They should be able to express their dissatisfaction. Supposing someone really opposed the war in Iraq, as I did. I wrote to my MP, Nick Raynsford, and got a 3 page letter back telling me “of course they have weapons of mass destruction”.

    I have brain cells, a PC and broadband, and I do not read the Sun. Therefore I knew they did not have such weapons. At the time, the conservatives also were in support of the invasion.

    Now I did tell nice Mr Raynsford that I would not vote for the labour party ever again if Britain invaded Iraq, but then I asked myself the question “who do I vote for?”. And in truth, I was not happy with any of them at the time.

    Now things may be different as there is a new kid on the block. However I am still not sure about his intentions, and at the next elections, if all the viable contenders want to do something I strongly disagree with, I want a say in the matter. I want my vote to count for something I want, and not have to either choose the least evil, or sit at home on election day.

    The election scenario reminds me of Nationwide’s “Brand New Customers Only” series of adverts, where both political parties are behaving in the same way. “Give us your vote”. Well sorry, I don’t want to be forced into a scenario of choosing A or B. I want to break the mould. I want to see the rest of the political alphabet or spectrum. I want something I like. Imagine making a big commitment like buying a house to live in for the next 5 years, and being offered two choices. You can have this terraced house, or this country house in the middle of nowhere. I want the freedom to say no to both!!

    Also I support PR, but trying to get that through to the powers that be is like trying to get two rival street gangs to pull together to support a community project. The winner of the fight (the election) will never agree to it.

    So I want to be able to say “sod you all” and make it count. I want to make the winner realise that he or she does not have my vote.

    Enough rambling, bedtime 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.