Should we hold elections on the weekend?

May 28, 2014
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There has been a lot of talk about the low voter turnout at last week's EU and local elections. With a showing of 36 per cent, according to EU figures—significantly lower than the European average of 43.1 per cent—roughly two-in-three UK adults didn't cast their vote. There are many factors contributing to this, but in the context of a longer-term fall in voter turnout it has led to calls for the introduction of online voting to make it easier and more accessible.

Eventually, it seems, the process will go this way—some countries are already working on introducing online voting—although there are concerns about fraud and anonymity that still need to be addressed. The Electoral Commission, the UK election watchdog, has suggested a number of other measures that could help, such as allowing voters to use any polling station within their constituency and introducing US-style same-day registration for those who have not registered to vote in advance.

In the meantime, though, there is one simple change that might help increase access to voting: holding elections on the weekend instead of, as is traditional, on a Thursday.

The last time an election was not held on a Thursday in the UK was 1931, although it's not clear how or why it became the traditional polling day. Almost all European countries hold elections on the weekend: of the 28 taking part in last week’s European Parliament election, the UK was one of only three—along with Ireland and the Netherlands—to hold their poll during the working week. Around the world, Sunday seems to be the most common day for elections, and in some countries—such as South Korea—election day is always a public holiday to enable as many people as possible to vote.

A friend working as a junior doctor at a hospital outside London reported that many of the nurses had not been able to cast their vote last week due to long working hours. This is particularly a problem for those with long commutes who work far from their local polling station. One woman I spoke to, Catherine Pryce, who commutes from Brighton to London, told me it was "disappointing" that she hadn't been able to cast her vote. "I leave the house at 6.50am... I work in marketing and advertising so sometimes late nights are required. I was stuck on the train and couldn't make it" to the polling station in time, she said. Since she didn't know in advance that she would be working late, she didn't register for a postal or proxy vote. "People need to make time [to vote] but those who can't are stuck... The voting system needs to be modernised... to get a balanced and fair view of everyone's opinions." A 2002 study by Mikko Mattila at the University of Helsinki found that turnout in European Parliament elections was around 10 per cent lower in countries that held them during the working week.

I'm not suggesting that this is the only or major factor affecting voter turnout. Slovakia held its vote on the weekend but still only managed a 13 per cent turnout in the EU election; likewise, only 19.5 per cent of the electorate in the Czech Republic came out to vote. Unsurprisingly, turnout was highest in those countries where voting is compulsory: Belgium and Luxembourg both achieved a 90 per cent voting rate, although turnout was less than 60 per cent in Greece, where it is also compulsory. Apathy; a lack of trust in political institutions; a sense of distance between voters and those in power; a feeling that "they're all the same"—all these things contribute to low voter turnout and urgently need addressing. But it is important that those who do still want to vote are not left out of the process for reasons that can easily be overcome.

There is little research into how moving election day in the UK would affect turnout, and more would be needed to really make the case for change. The government did run a limited consultation in 2008, which showed that political and faith groups tended to oppose moving voting day to the weekend—because of extra administrative burdens or because of religious commitments—whereas members of the public tended to favour it. In an Electoral Commission survey following the European Parliament and local elections of 2009, a third of people who didn't vote said they would have been more likely to if the election was held on the weekend. On the other hand, some argue that people are more likely to be on holiday then and therefore less able or less willing to vote. A better solution still might be early or multi-day voting, where people can vote in person on set days before the main election, as exists in many US states and some European countries.

But we shouldn't carry on voting on Thursdays for no reason other than that's what we've always done. Voting is a right, said Pryce, and "if people want to [vote] it should be as easy as possible. As a woman, we've fought for this right. To have no time to make it to the polling station because I was busy [working on] my career is a sad irony."