5. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal — A civic duty to vote Bill

– in the Senedd at 3:47 pm on 28 June 2023.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:47, 28 June 2023


Item 5 this afternoon is a debate on a Member's legislative proposal—a civic duty to vote Bill. I call on Adam Price to move the motion.


Motion NDM8293 Adam Price

Supported by Rhys ab Owen

To propose that the Senedd: 

1. Notes a proposal for a Bill on the introduction of a civic duty to vote.

2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to:

a) to seek to emulate the success of other democracies that have introduced a civic duty to vote in increasing levels of voter turnout at elections and thereby improving the level of engagement and representativeness across all ages, classes and communities;

b) to introduce a civic duty for all those eligible to vote to participate in Senedd and county council elections;

c) to allow those wishing to indicate their dissatisfaction with a candidate, party or politics more broadly to so by means of a positive abstention option on the ballot paper;

d) to allow for the introduction of an appropriate sanction for non-compliance with the civic obligation to vote or positively abstain, with legitimate exemptions; and

e) to provide for the introduction of a pilot phase for the introduction of the duty on an age-specific basis.


Motion moved.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 3:47, 28 June 2023

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. It's an honour to propose this motion on universal civic duty voting. It's not the first Senedd motion on this proposal. Six years ago, a motion advocating universal voting was tabled by Dawn Bowden, Jeremy Miles and the late Steffan Lewis, but was not selected. So, this is the first time we've had the opportunity as a Senedd to debate the proposition that every citizen, as part of their basic civic duties, should be required to participate in the nation's democratic life. 

A Senedd of 96 Members, at least half of them women, elected by more than 90 per cent of the electorate, would be more representative than any other Parliament in these islands. It is a massively transformational idea, but it's not a new or unusual one. It exists in 26 countries across the world: countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Ecuador, Greece, Singapore, Switzerland and Uruguay. In Australia, participation in elections has been mandatory since 1924. And the idea that citizenship involves not just rights but duties is a familiar one here in Wales too, as we accept our duty to pay taxes, to serve on a jury, to fill out the census, and, yes, also to register to vote.

So, why extend that principle to the act of voting itself? Well, there is one central premise behind this proposal: that the health of any democracy is only as good as the extent to which the people participate in it. This Parliament, though created by a majority of Welsh electors in 1997, has not been elected by a majority in any of the elections since then, and the same goes for local government elections in Wales over that period as well.

The first reason to introduce universal civic duty voting is that it would dramatically increase turnout to the 90 per cent plus that we typically see in elections in those countries like Belgium, Australia and Uruguay, where it is the norm. There can be no doubt that higher turnout would give the Senedd and the Welsh Government far greater legitimacy. But higher turnout would also make this Senedd more genuinely representative. The just under half of the electorate that vote at the moment is heavily skewed towards the older and more affluent voter, so the views of many of the young and the working class, especially those who feel that mainstream politics has the least to offer them, will go unheeded. Universal civic duty voting would give us instead a system in which everyone would count, not just those likely to vote. And if everyone is voting, every voice is heard. 

Introducing a civic duty to vote would also likely mean that, instead of making it more difficult for people to vote, as is happening for the Westminster Government at the moment, we would try to make it as easy as possible, through, for example, moving voting to a Saturday, introducing digital voting, and allowing people to vote at any polling station. And if every young person were required to vote, schools would have an even more powerful reason to provide political education as part of the mandatory curriculum.

Universal civic duty voting will transform our democracy's legitimacy, its representativeness and its culture. No citizen would be forced to vote for anyone against their will, and each of us will have the option of voting for a 'none of the above' option or simply returning a blank or spoilt ballot if that’s our wish. There would be reasonable grounds for exemption. Enforcement should be light touch, as it is in all jurisdictions that have introduced civic duty voting. Fines should be small and more symbolic in nature, with community service requirements as alternatives to fines for those on low incomes and the young, and we should consider the possible use of incentives as opposed to penalties, to minimise any possible adverse consequences.

For us to assess the different models for implementation, then it does make sense, I think, to have a graduated plan of implementation involving the use of pilots. I can think of two different ways we may want to do that—one area specific, the other age related. We could trial a civic duty to vote in a given local authority area during the next 2027 round of elections, and maybe use that as a basis for designing a national roll-out. We could decide, as a first step, to introduce a civic duty vote for first-time voters at the Senedd election in 2026. There's strong evidence that getting young voters into the habit of voting leads to a stronger propensity to vote in later life.

If there's broad agreement that this is a useful discussion for us to be having, then I have two practical suggestions—one for the Government, and one for us as a Senedd. For the Government, as I said yesterday, commissioning some independent research from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on how a civic duty to vote might impact the indicators of a healthy democracy would furnish us with a good evidential basis for an informed debate. For the Senedd, I think it would be useful if we held what would be the first ever committee inquiry specifically on universal civic duty voting in these islands. I'm thinking particularly of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee

I look forward to hearing Members' contributions and the ministerial response to this historic first debate.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 3:53, 28 June 2023

I'd like to thank Adam Price for bringing this important motion. I'd like to speak in favour of it and see it as a beginning of a very important discussion.

According to the research from the US think tank the Brookings Institution, the evidence shows what we already know, that a civic duty to vote can iron out disparities in turnout along class, ethnic and racial lines. We know these exist. We see them. We see huge differences in wards within our areas. For example, in last year's local elections, the turnout in the affluent ward of Rhiwbina was 57.5 per cent. In contrast, the turnout in Ely was 23 per cent. We have recently seen what happens when a community feels they are forgotten and ignored. And bear in mind that this is the percentage of registered voters, not of all those eligible to vote. I'm sure we've all canvassed in some wards, such as Ely, when we pass house after house who have not registered. I dread to think what the real turnout in Ely is. I can assure you it's far less than 23 per cent.

In Australia, registration became compulsory before the civic duty to vote, back in 1911, and turnout in Australian elections is always in the high 80s of those eligible to enrol. I was pleased to hear yesterday of the Welsh Government's commitment to bring forward a Bill that will take steps to ensure that every eligible voter in Wales is on the electoral register. Closer to home, all Belgian citizens are automatically registered to vote. Why are we creating additional barriers for people to express their democratic voice? It should be as straightforward as possible, and that is seen in Belgium, with voter turnout on average over 90 per cent over the last 10 elections. 

I can imagine that some of my friends on the Conservative benches may feel uneasy about the civic duty to vote, but bear this in mind: you might fear losing out in elections, you might fear losing votes, but just remember, at every Senedd election, your leader Andrew R.T. Davies talks about the need for your voters in Westminster elections to turn out and vote in Senedd elections. That doesn't happen for you at the moment; you don't inspire your Westminster voters to turn out in their droves to vote in Senedd elections. Who knows, a civic duty to vote may be one way to boost your support in Senedd elections. I made a quick calculation before this debate, and if your Westminster support was reflected in the Senedd elections, well, the Cwnsler Cyffredinol, who responds to this debate, would only have a slim majority of 17 votes. So, bear that in mind when you vote this afternoon. 

In proposing the introduction of a civic duty to vote—

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:56, 28 June 2023

You need to conclude now, Rhys.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru

—it would be a continuation of our innovative work in Wales in expanding the electorate, with votes at 16 and votes being more representative. Many will ask, 'Why divert from Westminster?', but we've had divergence in elections in Wales since 1999. As we heard earlier, we do have a democratic deficit in Wales; this Bill will be one step to address that. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour

Thank you, Adam Price, for introducing this Bill. I think it's really important. I really worry about the fact that we only had a 46.6 per cent turnout in the last Senedd elections, in 2021. Granted, it was the highest it's ever been, but let's compare that with a slightly larger but not dissimilar-sized electorate in Queensland, Australia, where the turnout in the 2020 Queensland state elections was 87.9 per cent. Queensland has had compulsory voting of one sort or another since 1915, and the effect of the civic duty to vote can be clearly seen. Whilst there is a fine for those who don't vote, a first-time offence can be discharged for as little as AU$20 and the maximum penalty is AU$180. I'm afraid I don't know how these amounts equate into pounds, but we're talking really moderate sums of money. And these fines are regularly enforced.

On top of that, there are several opt-outs built into the system that allow leniency. If someone is travelling, if they're ill, they can have an opt-out. In addition, there are exemptions for religious objection, seasonal workers, and those with no fixed address. If someone is not registered to vote, they can also be included as an opt-out. However, it must be noted that Queensland's electoral enrolment rate is apparently 96 per cent. I'm not quite sure how they equate that, but they don't have the same problem that Rhys ab Owen has just described, where they pass endlessly houses where no-one is registered to vote when they go around canvassing. This is in contrast to the situation that we have today with the UK Government's determined intention to suppress the vote amongst young people, linguistically marginalised communities and people who are poor. 

Queensland state encourages people to vote, not just enshrining it in law. They also have the phenomenon of the democracy sausage, where community organisations organise barbecues outside polling stations so that those queuing up to vote can pay a small fee to have a hot dog or another snack while they queue. Presumably that creates a sort of festive environment where everybody thinks this is something that we do together and something we should celebrate. And for many community groups, election day is their biggest fundraising day of the year. So, there's a win-win on all sides.

As Adam Price has already said, they vote on a Saturday, which means most people don't have to take time off work and it has a minimal effect on schools, and it means schools are available as one of the centres of polling because they're not being used for children's education. It's also to be noted that Australians can also vote near the beach. If it's in the summer, you get people turning up to vote in their beach gear with surfboards. And we have to really understand that if voting were compulsory—I completely agree with Adam Price—schools would have to provide political education. And I was really disappointed to hear from the discussions with ethnic minority young women last night in the Neuadd, that the schools they attend are still not providing young people with the information they need to appreciate the importance of voting, and that we have to change immediately.

Photo of John Griffiths John Griffiths Labour 4:00, 28 June 2023

It's certainly the case, isn't it, that in the UK and in Wales, we do not have the thriving democracy that we would wish to see, and I very much welcome ideas to improve on that situation, and I'm very pleased that Adam Price has brought this proposal forward for discussion and debate today. We do know that, as well as the lack of democratic legitimacy and the lack of the healthy democracy that we want in Wales, due to the low turnout and never having reached 50 per cent in Senedd elections, for example, there is also the question of equality and social justice in participation, as Adam Price said, and trying to ensure that more voices are heard and indeed that virtually every voice is heard.

I note that, in 2014, the European Social Survey found that over-55s in Britain were twice as likely to vote as under-35s, and those in the top income quintile were twice as likely to vote as those in the bottom quintile. So, there are real issues here that we need to get to grips with. And it's not just about coercion, is it; it's about sending a clear message and having an educative effort around a new civic duty to vote that I'm sure we would all be enthusiastic to help and take part in. And I think pilots is a very good idea in terms of the way forward, and we could test it in the ways that Adam Price has mentioned.

Sometimes, when I knock doors, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I'm met with a response that 'I'm not interested in politics', I sometimes say, 'Well, maybe, but politics is interested in you'. And that's the point, really, isn't it—that political parties are not going to concentrate on younger people and people in relative poverty, as much as they would otherwise, if they think those sections of society are less likely to vote, and their policies are then tailored accordingly, including if they get into Government, what they actually do. And I note that there is research, actually, that shows that those marginalised groups in terms of not voting at elections tend to suffer the greatest cuts to their household income from elected Governments in the UK. You know, these are real nitty-gritty, substantive issues that we need to try and address to a much greater extent than we have up to now.

And I do believe, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we could get to the stage of having a virtuous circle, where, if more people turn out to vote, including those marginalised categories, then political parties pay more attention to them, Government policies address their issues to a greater extent, and in turn, they become more interested in politics and they are more likely to vote. All of this I think sits very well with our new Senedd proposals—again, as Adam Price has mentioned—and, perhaps, an automatic registration system, which I also think is badly needed. So, a very timely debate. I very much welcome it, and I hope that this is just the start of something that will lead to concrete proposals implemented here in Wales.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:03, 28 June 2023

I speak also in support of the proposals being presented by Adam Price and welcome the opportunity to debate this hugely important issue. The right to vote, the power of the ballot box and the contract between people and politicians must be protected and, indeed, enhanced. My view has always been that we need to be truly radical and creative in reforming how, when and where people vote and, indeed, who can vote. Evidence from around the world shows that the strongest democracies are those where there is mass participation in elections and also robust accountability of elected servants, yet, here in Wales, in most elections, we struggle to achieve turnouts of just 50 per cent. As Adam Price and John Griffiths have identified, the young are far less likely to vote than older people, people in our least affluent communities are less likely to use their power at the ballot box than people living in relative comfort. So, we have a massively unequal degree of democratic participation. I don't need to rehearse the terrible risks to policy making and service delivery of such inequality of representation. It's something that the Constitution Society has raised with great clarity in its support for compulsory participation.

In terms of the public view of this issue, my understanding is that more than 70 per cent of British citizens agree that it is a civic duty to vote, that the contract between people and political servants works both ways, and that more people support the introduction of compulsory participation than oppose it. So, in supporting the proposals, I'd certainly urge colleagues to vote for the legislative proposal. At the very least, we should pilot compulsory participation to determine whether our democracy, whether the service delivery that we see at a national level and at a local level and whether our accountability to the people we serve can be enhanced through such reforms. And I certainly support the suggestion of piloting this with first-time voters in the initial phase, not least because such a measure could instil at an early age the importance of the civic duty that older people currently feel far more strongly about than the young.   

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:06, 28 June 2023


I call on the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw. 

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank Adam Price for introducing this thoughtful and important legislative proposal? As Members will know, I have often referred to the importance of our nation's democratic health in Senedd debates, and I believe that, alongside all the other well-beings that we're concerned with, the democratic health of our society is a vital component. A society where so many people are disengaged from our democratic process cannot be confident of its future stability and security. For Government to be stable, effective and confident, it needs to have the public legitimacy that only the electoral system can give. So, legitimacy of Government is not determined solely by winning elections and being in power, but also by commanding the common support of the people.

To achieve democratic legitimacy also requires the exercise of democratic responsibility of civic society by participating in those elections. In my view, your motion correctly focuses on and highlights the importance of what I would describe as a democratic covenant between Parliaments, Governments and the people. I've no doubt in my mind that there is indeed a civic responsibility to participate in elections and a duty to vote, and we should perhaps remind ourselves that even in the UK Parliament, the full inclusive democratic franchise is barely 90 years old. In that respect, it could be said that the UK and ourselves are relatively new democracies.

Perhaps it was the interwar and post-war generation that fought fascism and then had to rebuild the country, create the welfare state, the NHS, reconstruct our democracy and establish basic civil and human rights that regularly participated and understood the importance of elections, and established a baseline of well over 70 per cent participation in elections, in fact, many regarding voting as a civic duty. Or maybe it was the civic legacy of those who fought for civil rights, trade union rights, the Suffragettes, the Chartists and the early political pioneers who had to fight to establish our basic rights, including the right to vote. 

However, in recent decades, the commitment to participation has diminished year on year. How regularly we hear people on the doorstep, as John Griffiths has said, say that they don't bother voting, they don't know anything about it, or it doesn't make any difference so they can't be bothered. I'm certain that many of us have looked at other countries that have translated that civic duty into a formal legal obligation, and wondered why we have not done something similar. Our starting point as a Government at this stage, however, is to modernise the electoral system, to remove obstacles to improve inclusion, and to ensure that everyone who's entitled to be on the electoral register is on the register, and therefore at least able to vote. And we intend to achieve this through automatic registration.

Since the devolution of electoral policy, we've also extended the electoral franchise to 16-year-olds. Alongside this, however, is the need to ensure that people are engaged from a very young age in an understanding of how our society and our democratic system works, and how to participate in it. This means developing civic education. Preparing young people to understand and be able to participate in democratic processes is an essential responsibility of our education system, and indeed an objective of the new national curriculum. We have also supported local authorities and third sector organisations to encourage people to take up their right to register. This has had some success, but we will go further with our electoral reform Bill and will establish a system of automatic registration. However, being registered is only one part of the challenge. The other part is then to exercise that right and to actually vote.

The turnout at elections is a stark and simple measure of democratic health. We are sponsoring research into more sophisticated ways to measure democratic health, enabling better informed approaches to building it. The proposition of a civic duty to vote is interesting and has merit provided that it also includes a right to formally abstain, to cast a ‘none of the above’ vote. Our competence to legislate in such a way would need careful consideration, and we would also want to consider human rights implications, we’d want to consider carefully the consequences for not turning out, what would the appropriate sanction be, who would enforce it and how much would enforcement cost?

So, I will be—the Welsh Government will be—abstaining on the motion. Nevertheless, we know that mandatory turnout can work in many countries where it is applied and enforced. Turnout is markedly different to what we see usually in Wales, and indeed across the UK. However, before introducing such a fundamental change, we would need to carry out significant further consideration and consultation, and indeed, there would probably need to be a clear electoral Welsh general election mandate. I think the suggestion of further research, the possibility of a pilot, is something that is well worth exploring. Llywydd, I will be abstaining, but I do hope this is just the beginning of an important debate on a potential reform that I know many of us across all political parties have thought about over many years.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:12, 28 June 2023


I call on Adam Price to reply to the debate.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru

I’m grateful to all those Members who have contributed to this important debate. Rhys ab Owen focused us very early on on the question that is never too far, maybe, from the minds of politicians in thinking about this question, which is: who's going to gain electorally? I would say to that, it's impossible to predict accurately. That will be up to those voters who don't currently participate to decide. I would say, furthermore, that we all will gain. Whoever they end up voting for, we will all gain in creating a more fully representative democracy. 

Jenny Rathbone was right to point out, I think, that the civic duty to vote exists not just in federal elections in Australia, but at a regional, provincial level as well. Indeed, it works at local elections, so let's not forget that as well, in many, many of those nations that have introduced it. And she referred to the fact that, because basically the civic duty to vote has created a norm whereby people feel in Australia that democracy belongs to them, there is a celebratory atmosphere at election time as a result of that. So political culture has changed because of creating a statutory duty to vote, and that's the virtuous circle, I think, that John Griffiths referred to in his comments.

At the moment, the priorities of our political discourse and our culture are skewed, aren't they, because of the inequality in turnout? And so it tends to skew against younger generations and against those on lower incomes. Well, that cannot be right. That cannot be acceptable. We have the opportunity to put that right. 

And Ken Skates is right to point out that there is overwhelming support for the idea of the ethical civic duty to vote, and there is growing support for putting that ethical civic duty on a legal, statutory basis.

I really welcome the response of the Counsel General. This is a movement in the Welsh Government's position. In the last Senedd, the Welsh Government said that it was against the idea of compulsory voting, as it's sometimes called. So an abstention is a positive movement in our direction and a willingness to engage, Dirprwy Lywydd, on the positive proposals in terms of research and a pilot are very welcome, and we look forward to continuing those discussions. 

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:14, 28 June 2023


The proposal is to note the proposal. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, I will defer voting under this item until voting time. 


Voting deferred until voting time.