IN HER column (4 October) Joan Smith noted that over one-quarter of the British electorate did not vote at the 1997 general election, and claimed that "we don't know whether they had more pressing engagements or simply couldn't be bothered to walk to the nearest polling station". The survey of several thousand voters conducted after every election (the British Election Study based at Nuffield College, Oxford) asks respondents if they voted and, if not, why not. Their answers range widely, from "couldn't be bothered" through "it would make no difference whoever is elected" to "work prevented me from voting" and "I was away from home". We published several studies of these responses after the 1992 election, concluding that non-voters can be divided into two groups: those who made a conscious decision not to vote; and those who would have voted if they could but were prevented from doing so.
We have just analysed the answers to those questions for the 1997 election survey. These show that 37 per cent of those who abstained did so voluntarily whereas the other 63 per cent were involuntary abstainers. Most of those who didn't vote were prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons, therefore, and the message is that we need a more flexible system of voter registration and actual balloting so they can exercise the franchise. For the remainder - some 10 per cent of the total electorate (the small minority of "consistent abstainers"), plus those who chose not to register as voters - the message is that they need to be convinced that voting is a valuable right that they should exercise.
Department of Geography, University of Sheffield
School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol