One of the most disturbing aspects of democracy for committed democrats (like myself) is the low participation, at least in the official participation known as an election. Take, for example, the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections, where SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon claimed that “[t]he result of the election was emphatic…we won a clear and unequivocal mandate.”1 The SNP had won just less than half the seats and had attracted 44.1% of the votes cast from a voter turnout of 55.7%. Now this is considered a good turnout (the Westminster turnout is higher; 66.1% for the UK as a whole; 77.1% for Scotland) and the percentage voting for the winning party being 36.9% giving the Conservative and Unionist Party over 50% of the seats3. These are usually regarded as good turnouts.
A few observations can be made and I shall attend to only a few of those. In the Westminster election, you do not need very many voters to give a political party power. This does not seem at all democratic. The Holyrood system gives a better reflection of the wishes of the electorate, but still the political party in power has less than half of the votes of the entire franchise. I shall return to this issue of lack of legitimacy due to low support for both ruling party and representative democracy later. For now, the issue to look at is non-participation.
Without a survey of the non-participants (some of whom may actually turn out to be the most important non-participants as their views may suggest the way forward), I shall suggest at this time four reasons.
Firstly, the person is an Anarchist and will not vote as s/he perceives this is against his/her principles.
Secondly, the person is in a (usually religious) movement that forbids voting (either explicitly or implicitly).
Thirdly, the person is actually politically active in various movements, such as wildlife societies and considers that s/he is carrying out his/rights and duties towards society in an adequate manner.
Fourthly, discrimination. Just because one has the vote does not mean that one is regarded as a free and equal citizen by others and this may discourage one from voting.
2 statistics from http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7599
3 statistics from http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.html