The mistake the Political and Constitutional Reform inquiry made

Here’s what I told the Political and Constitutional Reform inquiry as part of the consultation following their report on voter engagement:

Although your report has covered many issues, it failed to give full consideration to one way of raising turnout in our elections.

I’ll be frank – it’s boring, it’s technical, it doesn’t attract attention and not much evidence has been gathered. But unlike online voting, the evidence so far is that it does raise turnout and the combination of its boring nature and the paucity of research is exactly why a detailed Parliamentary inquiry should give it attention. If not you, who will?

The issue in question is the physical distance that people voting in person have to travel to vote. Academic research so far suggests that the further someone has to travel to vote, the less likely they are to vote, with the implication therefore that investing in a greater number of polling stations would raise turnout.

The evidence so far includes the data presented at the EPOP Conference in 2011 that if the distance you have to travel to vote is over 600m in local elections, or over 500m for European Parliament elections, voter turnout plummets. (See the tweet from Professor Phil Cowley at https://twitter.com/philipjcowley/status/112205341281886208).

There is also the research into turnout at Brent elections over a 20 year period, concluding that “the local geography of the polling station can have a significant impact on voter turnout and that there should be a more strategic approach to the siting of polling stations”. (See Orford, S., Rallings, C., Thrasher, M. and Borisyuk, G. (2009), Electoral salience and the costs of voting at national, sub-national and supra-national elections in the UK: a case study of Brent, UK. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34: 195–214.)

Thirdly, and based on this research, there is the submission made by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the 2010-12 session (see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmpolcon/writev/1463/ea02.htm) which stated, “We recommend, however, an additional draft clause that these reviews [of polling station numbers and locations] also take into consideration the accessibility of the polling station in terms of distance travelled to vote by all the electorate in the polling district and not simply cast accessibility in terms of physical access to the polling station by disabled people. This is because the distance a person has to travel to vote can affect their propensity to do so, especially in lower-salience elections such as those to the European Parliament and local council elections… In our work in Brent (Orford et al., 2011) we demonstrate that by moving a polling station from its present location to another location that represented the maximum density of voters in the polling district, turnout could be increased by up to 5%. Hence, even subtle changes in electoral procedure and their effect on aggregate levels of turnout merely serve to emphasise the importance of the perceived costs of voting and the sensitivity of voters to this in terms of the decision to vote.”

It would therefore be a significant missed opportunity if your committee was to conclude its work without having given serious consideration to the issue of increasing the number of polling stations such as by recommending a pilot scheme to be evaluated with a view to national roll out if it is successful.

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