Over the last few years a wide range of attempts have been made to raise turnout at elections in the UK. The broad conclusion is very simple: all-postal ballots raise turnout significantly (albeit at the cost of various drawbacks) and nothing else that has been tried does so. E-voting, early voting, voting by text, and many others: all been tried, all flopped.
However, there are signs that moving to voting at the weekend may be coming back on the electoral administration agenda.
It is easy to see why weekend voting may appeal. Fewer people work at the weekend which could mean people are more likely to have time to go and vote, plus in turn candidates are more likely to be able to get volunteers out campaigning on polling day reminding people to vote.
The main drawbacks are also fairly straight-forward. Having weekend voting on only one day would run into religious problems as, whichever day you pick, there will be some people in the UK with strong religious beliefs against voting on that day. If this is accommodated by having voting over two days – which could boost turnout further anyway – then this raises issues of extra costs and of ballot box security overnight.
None of the drawbacks are insurmountable and so the issue really comes down to the question of whether or not weekend voting would really raise turnout. Early voting – allowing people to vote on other days at a limited range of locations, ahead of a conventional Thursday polling day – has been tried and failed, which suggests that making the time and place of voting more convenient may not be that helpful. That is not the same as weekend voting though, so some hard evidence on the matter is needed.
Weekend voting has been discussed for a long time. Back in 1991, for example, the all-party Hansard Society’s report Agenda for Change discussed moving voting to a Sunday and highlighted that the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) backed this idea. Similarly, in 1997, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that weekend voting should be tested out.
Partly as a result of this, the system of election pilots that was then put in motion by the 1999 Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures and then the 2000 Representation of the People Act included weekend voting in the list of ideas to try out.
However, in the event only Watford in 2000 tried out weekend voting. It was not a success at raising turnout, though the evidence is arguable. All the other elections that May took place on the preceding Thursday, so the national and regional media coverage seen by people in Watford between the Thursday and their own polling days was that the local elections had already taken place. That media coverage may well have depressed turnout by making people think voting had happened rather than was yet to happen. In addition, six polling stations were moved from their usual locations. The net result is that the evidence is inconclusive – and anyway this was only one pilot.
The idea didn’t die though, and in the 20007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, weekend voting was raised as an idea to consider once again, triggering a consultation paper just on the idea of weekend voting in June 2008.
There is good justification for the continued survival of the idea – weekend voting presents a reasonable prima facie case which is worth exploring – but the fact that the idea has been talked about for so long but with so little actual testing is another example of overall how poorly thought through the electoral pilots were – basic questions were left unanswered whilst other ideas were repeatedly re-tested long after it became clear they didn’t bring significant benefits.
One reason for the lack of testing of weekend voting is that large discretion was left to local councils to decide what ideas they wished to test. The fact that only one opted to test weekend voting , even though extra government funding was available to pay for the pilots, hints at the administrative difficulties voting over two days poses for councils.
The 2008 consultation is listed by the Ministry of Justice as “closed – awaiting response” but now the Electoral Commission looks to be trying to kick some life into the issue again with its report on the June 2009 European and local elections.:
In the report the Electoral Commission highlights that, “Thirty-six per cent of non-voters said they would be more likely to vote if they had the choice to vote at a weekend.” Such findings have to be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s easy to say that in a hypothetical situation you would be more likely to do something that is generally considered a good thing to do. However, were the number much lower then that would have been a strong argument against weekend voting, so this finding certainly keeps the issue open.
Weekend voting may come with some increased risks of electoral fraud and the Commission’s report provides some important warnings not to be complacent on this front. With the present system, “more than a quarter of people (27%) said that they were very or fairly concerned about fraud at the 2009 European Parliamentary elections” and rather worryingly, “one in five Local Returning Officers, 73 in total, did not meet the performance standard relating to identifying and managing the risk of electoral malpractice.”
On that last point the Commission is pushing Returning Officers in the right direction and the report contains a number of welcome recommendations in that respect.
On weekend voting itself, the Electoral Commission recommends:
The UK Government should publish and consult on its strategic vision for the future of elections and electoral administration, which it had committed to setting out by the end of June this year. Given the interest expressed by non-voters in our public opinion research in opportunities to vote at weekends, the Government should set out its position on advance voting, as a supplement to a principal polling day, as part of its wider vision.
My own view is that – if properly tested – we’re likely to find that weekend voting raises turnout and cost without opening the door to electoral fraud. Whether the raised turnout is worth the extra costs depends on both the figures involved and your view on how important democracy is. But until we have some more evidence, it’s all pretty much guesswork.