Meanwhile, voter ID proposals could dissuade marginalised groups furtherby Abi Wilkinson / June 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
This election is all about turnout. Demographics that are more likely to vote Labour have always been statistically less likely to make it to the polls, but this time, that difference is starker than ever. Much more than social class, age is now the primary dividing line. Young people are overwhelmingly likely to support the leftwing party, which also has a sizeable lead amongst 25-to-34-year-olds. Older voters, however, heavily favour the Conservatives; in the last general election, pensioners were roughly twice as likely as 18-to-24s to cast a ballot.
It’s possible things might be different this time. It is estimated that, compared with the 2015 general election, youth turnout was up about 20% in the EU referendum. Looking at what happened in Scotland after the Indy Ref, there’s some reason to believe that may lead to continued engagement over the long term. It’s also fair to say that Labour’s campaign has particularly targeted young people. The manifesto contained eye-catching promises on tuition fees, an increased minimum wage and rental regulations designed to appeal to young voters. Rallies across the country have attracted unprecedented crowds, and Corbyn has widespread support from celebrities with younger audiences, particularly grime artists.
But what if, despite all of this, youth turnout is still underwhelming? No doubt some will argue that people who don’t bother to make it to the polls don’t deserve a say. But before adjustments are made to account for different demographics’ likelihood of voting, many opinion polls have Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck. In this context, it strikes me as anti-democratic to be satisfied with a potential result that totally fails to capture the actual spread of opinion in this country.
There are many reasons why younger people (and other groups with historically lower turnout) might be less likely to actually cast a vote. Disillusionment and a lack of faith that voting will actually change anything is one. Confusion about the voting process and failure to register on time is another—something that’s a particular problem for young people, who are more likely to have to frequently move home. Another is a simple lack of habit.
It’s easy to roll your eyes, but anyone who claims to believe in the principle of democracy should care about maximising political participation. Even those who argue young people are simply lazy need to justify why, exactly, laziness should disqualify someone from having an equal say.
It’s time to think seriously about practical steps that could boost turnout numbers. In Australia, compulsory voting works adequately—but the $20 fine imposed on people who fail to participate feels a little authoritarian. Same day registration would certainly help, and is far less morally ambiguous. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve met many people who want to vote but didn’t realise they needed to register before the deadline. It would require additional resources to administer, true, but many US states manage to pull it off.
Another option is online voting. The UK Electoral Commission has run trials in the past and found that it had a positive effect, and advocacy organisation WebRoots Democracy claims it could significantly boost youth turnout. And Commons Speaker John Bercow has argued that online voting should become an option within the next few years. If Labour wins this time, it plans to trial online voting in the next general election.
Some countries already allow people to vote online. Estonia adopted it nationally in its 2007 general election and in New South Wales, Australia, disabled people and individuals living in rural areas can vote online or via phone.
Experts argue there are significant security issues that will take time to solve. Though it seems that the secure technology used for things like online banking should be adequate, the reality is more complex. Unlike with banking, elections require the identity of the person casting each ballot to be protected. It’s much harder to achieve this while also protecting against fake votes.
However, technical issues are likely only a temporary barrier. The more significant hurdle is political will. As long as the Conservatives remain in government, it’s unlikely anything will be done to make voting easier. The fewer young, working class and BAME people vote, the more likely they are to keep winning. It’s no surprise, then, that they seem to be more interested in measures likely to decrease turnout.
Plans to require photo ID to vote, for instance, are being justified as an anti-fraud measure—but the rate of voting fraud in this country is negligible. There were just 130 alleged cases in 2015, but 10 million UK citizens currently lack any form of photo ID. Poorer people are particularly likely to be disenfranchised under this proposal due to the cost of acquiring one of the accepted forms of identification. Even a provisional driving licence costs £34.
There’s also some evidence that the Conservatives, who have received significantly more in electoral campaign donations than any other party, may have used some of that dosh to “drown out” Facebook adverts encouraging young people to vote. On the day before the registration deadline, the price of advertising slots in key marginals shot up. The Guardian reports: “The way that Facebook ads work is that you ‘bid’ for the slots… so if the price shoots up, it means someone is bidding against you for the same slot.”
It’s too soon to know how the turnout figures look for this general election, but I fear we could be caught in a vicious cycle. The Tories win because the groups most likely to oppose them fail to vote in sufficient numbers—then they do everything they can to ensure this remains the case.