"There are various ideas the UK might borrow from its neighbours in Europe"by Jessica Abrahams / May 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
On 7th May, more than 30 million French citizens cast their votes in a high-stakes presidential election. At around 74 per cent of the electorate, this was the lowest voter turnout since 1969.
If this had happened in the UK, on the other hand, it would have represented the highest turnout for a general election in 25 years. While turnout hovered above 70 per cent between the 1950s and early 1990s, it dropped to a low of just 59.4 per cent in 2001 and has never recovered. When the Conservative Party was re-elected at the last general election, turnout was just over 66 per cent.
Meanwhile, much has been said about participation in the EU referendum last year. Although turnout was considerably higher than for recent general elections, it nonetheless allowed radical change for the country to be passed on the back of a Leave vote from about 37 per cent of registered voters—not to mention those who aren’t registered, estimated at up to 7.5 million people as of 2010 by the Electoral Commission.
There are complex reasons for the UK’s low voting figures. With another election approaching in a few weeks’ time, campaigners argue that some of the most intractable issues surround the first-past-the-post electoral system, which leads many people to feel that their vote is wasted. This is without even getting into new policies which could actively prevent millions from coming out on polling day: yesterday, the Conservatives unveiled plans to stop people without photo ID voting. The pledge has been met with justified outrage. (In Prospect‘s February issue, Desmond King and Rogers Smith outlined the disaster new photo ID laws caused in the US).
In the long-term, much hope is pinned to the potential of online voting, which could vastly increase turnout globally by making it possible to vote at the click of a button. This is likely some way off: while it is in partial use in a number of countries, serious concerns about security persist. The Netherlands—where votes are submitted manually but counted electronically—reverted to pen and paper for the election this March over concerns about possible hacking efforts, including from Russia, amid the risk of growing support for the far right.
But not all reforms require radical overhaul. There are various ideas the UK might borrow from its neighbours in Europe and beyond that could help improve turnout simply by making the process of voting more accessible.
Automatic voter registration
Common among European countries with the highest turnouts—including France, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands—is automatic voter registration. Eligible citizens are automatically added to the electoral register as they reach voting age, cutting out an off-putting bureaucratic hurdle.
“Automatic voter registration is the dream,” said Josh Dell, communications and advocacy officer at Bite the Ballot, an organisation that works to engage young people in politics. He pointed to evidence that 186,000 people applied for registration after the deadlineat the last general election, while two thirds of poll workers reported having to turn away people who mistakenly thought they were registered. The registration website also crashed just before the EU referendum last June, overwhelmed by a rush of applications.
Campaigners add that automatic registration would reduce inequalities in the cross-section of citizens who are able to cast their votes, since those who aren’t registered are disproportionately from young or marginalised groups.
In response to a 2014/15 recommendation from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) that automatic voter registration should be considered, the government said it “believes registering to vote is a civic duty and that individuals should take responsibility for their own vote.”
But Dell asked, “where is the education coming from that can instil this civic duty?”, saying that registration can seem confusing—especially for students who live between two constituencies, for example—and that schools must teach pupils about how the process works if the onus is going to be on them.
There are also complexities around how automatic registration would work. In those European countries where it is used, the electoral roll is usually drawn from another public register, such as a population register, mandatory census or registers of births and deaths. In the UK, campaigners have suggested it could be drawn from the national insurance register or council tax forms.
But opponents argue this would be a huge and expensive undertaking, and some also object to the holding of a central electoral register for security and privacy reasons. An attempt to develop such a register, initiated by Labour in 2005, was abandoned by the coalition government in 2011.
A “lighter” alternative to automatic registration would be allowing same-day registration at the polling station. This is available during elections in Canada and some US states. Advocates point to data from the US that shows that average turnout is 10 percentage points higher in states that allow same-day registration, and that those who make use of it are disproportionately from minority groups. They also say it is a cost-effective option: Iowa introduced same-day registration for the 2008 presidential election at a cost of $40,000 across the state.
Following the French election, many observers this side of the Channel were quick to point to the practice of holding elections on a Sunday as at least a partial explanation of the country’s higher turnout figures.
Why don’t we have Sunday elections in the UK with polls closing while it is still light?
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) May 7, 2017
One lesson from the French election & the high turnout is to have elections at the weekend. UK & Ireland, take note.
— Ferdinand (@vonprond) April 23, 2017
It is not just the French: almost all European countries hold elections on the weekend. But in the UK, elections have been held on Thursdays by tradition since 1931 (for reasons that are not quite clear), and this was formalised in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2011.
Some argue that this habit limits participation because of higher levels of working commitments during the week. Studies show that holding elections on the weekend can increase turnout by up to 10 per cent. In an Electoral Commission survey following the European Parliament and local elections of 2009, a third of people who hadn’t voted said they would have been more likely to if the election was held on the weekend.
The argument against it typically pivots on the higher costs that come with it, for example, the need to open venues on the weekend and pay council staff extra to supervise polling stations and counts. A 2010 impact assessment by the Ministry of Justice estimated that holding parliamentary elections on the weekend would cost at least £38 million more each time.
Campaigners argue that the cost is worth it to increase political engagement and voter participation.
An alternative would be to designate election day as a public holiday, as happens in countries including South Korea and South Africa, as well as in some US states. Proponents argue that this allows more people to vote and also marks the day out as important, helping to drum up enthusiasm around voting.
However, the government rejected both proposals in its response to the 2014/15 PCRC report, pointing to the additional costs and claiming there is insufficient evidence about the impact the changes would have on participation.
Early in-person voting
An alternative to weekend elections is “early in-person voting”—available in many US states—where voters can cast their votes ahead of time at a town hall, public office or other designated location. This gives people a chance to vote at a time that’s more convenient for them, meaning they can avoid taking time off work and can still vote if plans unexpectedly change. It avoids the hassle and time restrictions of applying for a postal or proxy vote, as well as some of the security concerns associated with those methods.
Although it isn’t clear how much early in-person voting impacts overall turnout, it seems to be popular with voters—across the US, a third of votes were cast early in the 2012 election, for example—while poll workers say it reduces the burden on overcrowded stations on election day and shortens wait times. That has been a big problem during some UK elections, with some voters left waiting for hours and others turned away entirely due to long queues in 2010.
President Barack Obama was a keen advocate of early voting on the grounds that it makes voting easier, once claiming that the US—which holds elections on Tuesdays—“is the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote.”
But critics say that people who cast their vote early—more than a month before election day, in some US states—have less information to base it on, including information that might arise from debates and media scrutiny of candidates and their policies.
They also say it waters down the “civic engagement” effect of having a single day as a focal point for voting. One study found that early voting has a slightly negative effect on turnout (although other studies have found the opposite), with the authors concluding that it “depresses turnout by diffusing attention to the election and reducing the importance of election-day mobilisation.”
Advocates argue that these effects can be mitigated by restricting early voting to just a few days before an election, while retaining many of the benefits.
Katie Ghose, CEO of the Electoral Reform Society, told Prospect: “We need a broad package of reform to revitalise people’s engagement with politics—there is no single solution.”
She said trialling early voting, same-day registration, weekend elections and other reforms “would all go a long way to boosting our democracy.”
“It doesn’t have to be inevitable that millions stay at home rather than use their democratic right to vote,” she added. “There is plenty that can be done to address the problem—government and civil society just needs to get on with doing it.”