Politics

Here’s what the UK can learn from Australia, Sweden, and the US about getting voters to the polls

With concerns that new voter ID laws will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands in the UK, here's what other countries are doing to push up turnout

A voter arrives at a polling station in Honley, Britain, 04 May 2023. Image: ADAM VAUGHAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The elections Thursday May 4 were the first in England requiring photo ID, but have put the spotlight on access to democracy. The UK’s new voter ID laws have been branded an “expensive distraction” and “the latest threat to our democracy”. 

While the UK and its leaders often talk of defending democracy, other countries are leading the way in making sure citizens are able to exercise their democratic rights.

In the UK, 40 million people registered to vote in the 2019 election, and 67 per cent of those actually voted.

From Sweden to Australia, countries around the world are trying different ways of getting voters to the polling booth. Here’s how it’s going.

Sweden: Automatic registration

Philosophers might argue over what it means to exist, but if you ask someone from Sweden, they might just tell you about the Tax Agency, or Skatteverket. Swedes are big on population registers, with the oldest register collected by the church dating back to the 17th century.

When a child is born, the hospital or midwife reports the information to the Tax Agency. Those who move to the country, change address, or change their names will usually have to submit their own information. If you move, you must notify the Tax Agency within one week.

If you are on the population register (Swedish Tax Agency Population Register) 30 days before polling day, you’ll be automatically sent a polling card.

This system means election registration – and turnout – is high.

In 2022, 7.775 million of the 8.149 million voting age population was registered – around 95 per cent, while turnout was 84.21 per cent.

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Australia: Compulsory registration and voting

Australia goes one step further than Sweden with its system of compulsory voting and compulsory registration.

It was also one of the first countries in which women were able to vote – since 1903, a quarter of a century before the UK. However, Aboriginal Australians were not able to vote until 1962.

Compulsory voting has been around since 1924, after just 59.39 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls.

You must register within eight weeks of turning 18. On polling day, the fine for not voting is initially $20 (about £10), but goes up to $220 (about £117)if not paid.

If you don’t want to pay this, you must have a reasonable excuse. These are assessed on a case-by-case basis, but can include sickness, natural events, or physical obstruction – or even saving somebody’s life on the way to vote.

If the excuse doesn’t wash or you don’t pay the fine, you’ll end up in court.

The system does have its opponents. In 1998, eight Australians were jailed for refusing to vote, while critics say it is “disgusting” and “far from being democratic”.

However, if you don’t want to vote, you can still spoil your ballot by marking it in a way that means it’s not counted as a vote.

Despite these measures, turnout has been in decline. For the first time for at least 80 years, turnout in 2022 fell below 90 per cent.

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The USA: Same-day registration and automatic voter registration

America’s history with voter registration, suppression, and turnout is notorious. But across the country, initiatives are in place to increase the number of people who vote.

In the UK, the deadline to register to vote is often weeks before an election. For example, anybody wishing to vote in the May 4 local elections needed to register by April 17.

But that’s not the only way to do it. The US has found that allowing voters to register and cast their ballots on the same day means more people vote. Not only that, but it also increases turnout among Black, Latinx, and young voters.

A number of states have also introduced automatic voter registration (AVR), which makes voting opt-out. If you interact with government agencies – most often the Department for Motor Vehicles – you’re automatically registered to vote unless you ask not to be.
Currently, 22 states plus Washington D.C. have AVR in place. It’s a fairly recent development, with Oregon the first to place it in law in 2015, and Hawaii and Delaware passing their own laws in 2021. When Vermont introduced AVR in 2017, registration rates increased by 62 per cent.

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