In theory, it is one of the easiest things in the world: to mark, with two strokes of a pencil, an "X" on a piece of paper. Yet, 48 hours before Gordon Brown goes to Buckingham Palace to trigger what will be the closest-fought general election in years, record numbers of people are planning to shun the ballot box on 6 May.
A toxic mix of the expenses and lobbying scandals, plus the recession still casting a shadow over the country, has deepened voter apathy.
Today, in response, The Independent on Sunday launches One of the Above, a campaign to encourage people to exercise their right to vote – a right that people in the UK once died for.
The campaign has the backing of all the major party leaders and more than 60 leading figures in politics, the arts and public life.
Even among those who feel inclined to vote, some 3.5 million have been disenfranchised because they are not on the electoral roll.
But there are millions of others who will not vote because they are disaffected with the mainstream parties, compounded by the breakdown of trust following the revelations of MPs' lavish expenses last year.
Last night the Prime Minister told the IoS that extremist parties, such as the British National Party, were the ones who benefited from low turnout.
A recent ComRes poll for the IoS showed 18 per cent of the electorate were "certain not to vote" – up from 11 per cent from the same time in 2005. Only 44 per cent said they were "absolutely certain to vote". In 2005, turnout was the second lowest since the Second World War, at 61.4 per cent, but it is expected to be even lower this time.
Backing the One of the Above campaign, Mr Brown, who will announce on Tuesday that the 2010 election is to take place on 6 May, said: "Voting is not ultimately about the fortunes of political parties. It is about your job, your family, your schools and the sort of future you want for our country.
"If turnout is low, the parties who benefit are those at the extremes, and so I'd encourage each and every Independent on Sunday reader to use their hard-won right to vote."
The Tory leader, David Cameron, said: "I know that people are fed up with politics, I know they're angry and feel that nothing is ever going to change. But change can be real, change is possible – and that change begins at the ballot box. The ballot box gives everyone a chance to choose a new direction for our country. It's the most powerful tool for change we have.
"That's why the One of the Above campaign is so important. It's all about saying, yes, people are angry, yes, people are disillusioned, but if we want to change this country, everyone's got to go out there and vote."
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, added: "This is a timely and important campaign. If more and more people don't exercise their right to vote, it imperils our democracy."
Recent research has shown large sections of society are disenfranchised before the campaign even gets under way, either because they are not on the electoral roll or, if they are, because they have decided to ignore the election:
Young people 56 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds are not registered to vote, according to the Electoral Commission, while polls show 25 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds say they are "certain not to vote";
Those on low incomes Polls show one in four people in social grade DE are "certain not to vote", compared with one in 10 in grade AB;
Armed forces A new annual requirement to register means just 21,000 out of 240,000 service personnel are on the electoral roll, a fall from 139,000;
People from black and ethnic minorities 31 per cent are not registered;
Recent home-movers and private tenants Just 21 per cent of people living at their present address for a year or less, including students, are registered.
The IoS One of the Above campaign has two central aims: to encourage people to make sure they are on the register, and to get people to vote, either by post or at the ballot box, on 6 May.
We acknowledge that there may be people who, after four weeks of listening to politicians' pitches, will still want to make their point by spoiling their ballot paper. But even if you are already on the register, make sure your family – especially if you have student children – and friends are signed up.
Political parties and leading organisations are stepping up efforts to get people to engage in politics amid fears of record voter apathy. Yesterday, the cabinet minister brothers David and Ed Miliband set out Labour's record of policies aimed at young people in a bid to re-engage this section of the electorate. And, during the four-week campaign, all three main party leaders will try to reach Asda's 18 million customers via a series of recorded election messages broadcast on the supermarket's website. In the 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain recorded similar messages for Asda's parent company, Walmart.
Aware that more people voted in the final of last year's The X Factor than voted for Tony Blair in 2005, Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats hope the three live televised leaders' debates, starting next week, will draw audiences from beyond those normally interested in politics, out of the total UK electorate of 45 million.
The parties are also using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the first digital election campaign. Facebook, which is backing the IoS One of the Above campaign, has created a page, Democracy UK, to reach its 23 million UK users on the key issues of the campaign.
The Electoral Commission, another supporter of our campaign, last week launched a drive to remind people to register, called What's Stopping You? It followed the commission's report last month that revealed more than 3.5 million voters are not registered. The register is updated annually; people fall off if they do not respond to official letters confirming they are still at that address. A recent YouGov survey found one in four people mistakenly thought paying council tax meant they were on the register. The commission's report found 26 per cent of Glasgow voters, some 100,000, are unregistered.
It also said "general long-term decline in interest in politics accelerated during the period 1998-2004", which prompted a "related fall in public motivation to register to vote".
The British Social Attitudes survey in 2008 found that 18 per cent of the electorate said it was "not worth voting", up from 8 per cent in the 1990s.
Follow the One of the Above campaign at www.twitter.com/oneofabove
David Cameron MP
Conservative Party leader
I know that people are fed up of politics. I know they're angry and feel that nothing is ever going to change. But change can be real, change is possible – and that change begins at the ballot box. The ballot box gives everyone a chance to choose a new direction for our country. It's the most powerful tool for change we have. That's why the One of the Above campaign is so important. It's all about saying yes, people are angry, yes, people are disillusioned, but if we want to change this country, everyone's got to go out there and vote.
I vote because women struggled so hard for the vote – throughout the late 19th century to the Suffragettes. They changed our lives and deserve our gratitude. I may not know how I'll be voting, but I will still take part.
Director of Liberty
I can sympathise with people who feel uninspired but I do think we have an ethical obligation to vote. It is the most significant opportunity that you have in a democracy to influence the future, and we use it or lose it.
Journalist and environmental activist
I vote in every election, from city council to the national parliament. I wouldn't dream of not exercising my right to vote. If you don't participate in democracy you have no right to an opinion about the way the country is run. It's everybody's duty as a citizen to be involved in making decisions.
Actor and playwright
It's too important not to. I'm all up for compulsory voting. It's my son's first time voting and we've arranged that he and all his friends come to my house and we're all going to go to the polling booth together. That's how important I think it is.
TUC general secretary
There's a worry the expenses scandal has made people less likely to vote. It's important that people, particularly the young, feel they're part of the democratic process. And staying at home on polling day could help parties like the BNP, who will be banking on a low turnout.
Nick Clegg MP
Liberal Democrats leader
This is a timely and important campaign. I fully support The Independent on Sunday's One of the Above campaign to tackle voter apathy. If more and more people don't exercise their right to vote, it imperils our democracy. If you're angry and frustrated by the expenses scandal, the temptation is not to vote at all. But the only way we're going to change British politics for good is by millions of men and women telling politicians what kind of change they want.
I can understand why people feel a bit disappointed – we desperately need reform. But not to participate in voting is wrong. I'm the daughter of a father who couldn't vote because of the colour of his skin, so I was taught: go and vote. Voting is an obligation and a duty.
In many seats up and down the country the student vote has made a decisive difference in previous general elections, and will do so again. By registering to vote, you are saying that you care about the decisions that politicians make on your behalf.
Carol Ann Duffy
I believe, because of the heroic struggle of the Suffragettes for women to gain the right to vote, that we must use our right to vote.
European policy director, Facebook
Facebook supports the One of the Above campaign. The internet will engage more people in the political process and, we hope, boost voter turnout. It's the new era in politics that people have been crying out for.
Sir Clive Sinclair
I've never once failed to vote in my life. Pericles delivered a speech about the importance of voting, stating that those who do not are not honourable men.
Director, Amnesty International
In many countries people are still fighting for the right to express their political beliefs. This election is a chance for voters who believe in basic freedoms to speak up and insist that all parties make human rights a top priority.
I think the right to vote is important but you should also have the right to abstain. Voting is a choice of the individual.
Yo! Sushi founder
When the time comes I will be stepping up to the polling booth; but, more importantly, I'll be supporting whoever wins. That is the important bit. The Greeks had a concept of two truths being able to exist together.
We get the politicians we deserve – even if the first-past-the-post system here in the UK is a disaster for democracy. This time around, the prospect of a hung parliament makes the business of voting all the more important.
Director, Howard League for Penal Reform
The image of queues of people waiting for hours to vote in South Africa after the fall of apartheid will stay with me to my last hours. I admit to exasperation with people who don't vote but who exercise the right to whinge.
Alex Salmond MSP
First Minister of Scotland
The right to vote is precious, and was hard fought for by past generations of women and men. Voting in an election every few years is by no means the be-all and end-all of democratic participation, but it is a central and necessary aspect. The people decide how we are governed – and the more people who cast their vote, the broader based and better the decisions of government should be. Let us honestly disagree about the best way forward for our country, and equally strongly agree that it is for all citizens to decide what that future should be at the ballot box.
Public affairs, the Scout Association
Scouting has made great progress in raising the importance of engagement with democracy among young people. The Independent on Sunday's One of the Above campaign illustrates why people of all ages should vote. Every vote counts; the impact of decisions made by politicians about the social and economic priorities of communities in the UK means that if more people take notice of the One of the Above campaign and cast their vote, they can truly feel that their vote will make a difference in shaping our society.
A L Kennedy
It's important – particularly for a woman – to vote. People died, after all, to get the vote. I don't think it's apathy; it would be more accurate to say it is disgust that people are feeling. You can't expect people to vote for you if you behave in such a manner. If you were a plumber and you behaved like that you would not be employed again. Politicians need to realise this.
Human rights activist
Despite the corrupt first-past-the-post system, it is important to vote to defend gains like the Human Rights Act, which the Tories want to repeal. A big turnout will reduce the chances of the BNP winning seats. This is an opportunity to punish the three big parties.
I think voting is one of the most exciting things you can do. We need to start at schools to tell young people how exciting it is.
Elfyn Llwyd MP
In the very possible event of a hung parliament, every single vote will be of huge importance, and parties such as Plaid Cymru will find themselves in a unique bargaining position. Don't waste an opportunity to change history this election.
Bishop of Croydon
The common good can properly be served only when we take seriously the demand to "love our neighbour" – and that means not abandoning the electoral ground to those who occupy the extremes in political, social or economic thought.
Voting is not ultimately about the fortunes of political parties. It is about your job, your family, your schools and the sort of future you want for our country. I know the expenses scandal has damaged many people's faith in politics, but I would say to people thinking of staying at home: your child trust fund, your child tax credit, your local Sure Start are at risk. The outcome of this election will have a direct impact on your family finances, so you literally can't afford to ignore it. So the choice between Labour and our opponents is a big one, but the most important thing is to vote at all. If turnout is low, the parties that benefit are those at the extremes, so I'd encourage each and every Independent on Sunday reader to use their hard-won right to vote.
We are a democracy and we rule ourselves in a sense, so if we don't use the privilege of a vote we can't grumble if things go wrong.
I can't get the history of the women's vote out of my head, and what it cost people to get it. It's a long time ago now, but it's a terrible waste not to use it. You can spoil a ballot paper, but not voting at all is just sticking your head in the sand.
Assisted dying is the most important thing in my life and 80 per cent of the public want a discussion about it, yet politicians refuse to talk about it. If we don't vote, then they will continue to refuse to engage on issues that are important to the people.
If you champion a cause and have celebrity status you can effect change, but this still isn't enough. Unless there are people in power who can execute and facilitate charities' work, then all the good intentions just stagnate. It is imperative that we use our power to vote.
Although I think it's very easy to be disillusioned with Parliament, particularly after the expenses scandal and the fact that they all tried so hard to cover it, if you're going to moan about what's not right you must do something about it when you get the chance.
Sir Chris Bonington
I'm not a member of a political party, never would be, but I am passionately interested in politics and current affairs. I think the Australian system, where it's compulsory, is not a bad thing. Everyone should vote: it's one's social responsibility.
Muhammad Abdul Bari
Secretary general, Muslim Council of Britain
Voting is not only a civic imperative; it's a religious obligation. As Muslims, we have an obligation to join others to seek the common good. The mere fact that we are there voting, canvassing and lobbying gives the lie to claims that Muslims are somehow incompatible with British life.
This is the only part of our democratic system where we have an equal voice to men. Our parliament is still under 20 per cent women. I will certainly be casting my vote, and for the party that I believe is most likely to address this and other scandalous inequalities.
Olympic champion javelin thrower
The election will decide what life will be like for each one of us for the next five years, so if you don't vote, you can't moan.
Author and screenwriter
To encourage more young people to take an interest we need them to see an example of energetic and idealistic young people involved in politics. We need a fresh new generation.
Interviews by Jonathan Owen, Carys Matthews, Amanda Hall, Emily Dugan, Nina Lakhani, Jane Merrick and Brian Brady.
Four steps to the polling booth
1. Make sure you are eligible to vote by contacting the Electoral Commission. You can go online at www.aboutmyvote.co.uk or call 0800 328 0280. Alternatively, you can contact your nearest electoral registration officer via your local council.
2. Get hold of a voting registration form – either online or from your town hall – and fill it out. It is just one page and requires you to fill out your full name, address, nationality, and date of birth (if you are under 18). It also lets you request application forms to vote by post, or by proxy – where someone else votes on your behalf.
3. Don't miss the deadline: you can't register to vote any later than 11 working days before polling day.
4. Vote – you'll be sent a card with details of your local polling station and opening times. Turn up on the day and mark X in the box next to the one candidate of your choice.
Facts: The myths and the realities of voting
Myth If you pay council tax, you're automatically registered to vote.
Reality No. You have to register yourself or you cannot vote.
Myth You can register only once a year, when reminder letters are sent out by the Electoral Commission.
Reality You can register to vote at any time of the year.
Myth Students have to go home to register and vote.
Reality You can register to vote at your student address as well as your home address, and can choose which polling station you use.
Myth You have to live at a fixed address to register.
Reality No. Homeless people can use a "declaration of local connection" or use a temporary address.
Myth You don't have to re-register to vote if you've moved, as long as you've stayed within the same local authority area.
Reality Not so. If you change any of your personal details, such as your address, you need to re-register.
Myth You can register to vote up to the date of election.
Reality No. The latest is 11 days before polling day.
Myth People who register to vote have their details passed on to marketing companies.
Reality Not true. You can choose to opt out of the edited register – the only one that's made public – when you register to vote.
History of the franchise: It took centuries to get you a vote
The British electoral system shifted from royal to parliamentary sovereignty over the course of more than 500 years. The following Acts of Parliament extended the UK franchise:
1432 Electors of Knights of the Shire Act: male owners of freehold land or property worth 40 shillings can vote.
1832 Representation of the People Act: the Great Reform Act. Uniform franchise introduced in boroughs for owners of land worth £10 or more.
1867 Representation of the People Act: the Second Reform Act. Male urban householders and lodgers paying at least £10 annually get the vote. Electorate almost doubles to 1.5 million.
1872 Ballot Act: secret ballot starts.
1884 Representation of the People Act: the Third Reform Act. Rural workers get the vote. Electorate increases to more than 5.5 million – 24 per cent of male population.
1903 The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) campaign for women's votes.
1910 Conciliation Bill, to allow women with property to vote, fails. "Black Friday" riot outside Parliament.
1918 Representation of the People Act: all men over 21 and women over 30 get the vote. Electorate triples from 7.7 million to 21.4 million.
1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act: vote for all adults over 21.
1969 Representation of the People Act: voting age lowered to 18.
1985 Representation of the People Act: "absent votes" allowed.
1989 Representation of the People Act: expats can vote for 15 years after emigration.
2000 Representation of the People Act: rolling registration system is introduced.
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