During 2011, the political reform agenda is likely to be dominated by a spring referendum on the alternative vote and by the government fleshing out its promise to bring in elections by proportional representation for an elected Upper House. Significant though the impact of both the alternative vote and Upper House elections may be, there are two much smaller ideas the government should look to pilot during the year because a healthy democracy also requires healthy turnouts; 2011 should see weekend voting and increasing the number of polling stations tested out.
Raising turnout in public elections is a widely shared aimed that rapidly runs into two difficulties. First, though people across parties usually share a general support for higher turnout, when it comes to targeting people living in specific areas or from specific communities, raising turnout rapidly comes with an obvious electoral impact to the advantage or disadvantage of particular candidates and parties. As a result, state-funded efforts to raise turnout tend to be at the rather general and bland level rather than getting into the sort of individual contact and marketing that you get in other areas. These state efforts do not always do themselves too many favours (witness the poor design of many poll cards) but the desire by public authorities to avoid getting into activities that could be seen as directly favouring particular candidates is a worthy one.
The second problem is that – courtesy of a long series of pilots tried out during Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister – we know that an awful lot of ideas do not do much, if anything, to raise turnout. Early voting in supermarkets, voting by text, online voting and many more were tried out – and all failed to raise turnout by any significant degree except for one: mandatory all-postal voting. That has a major impact on turnout but comes with other questions about fraud and freedom within a household to vote as you wish.
There are, however, two ideas that have not been properly explored: weekend voting and more polling stations.
Weekend voting has been once briefly trialled (in Watford a decade ago). It was not a success then, but there are good reasons to try again given the details of how the trial was conducted – especially holding the weekend elections just after the usual national round of local elections, with the result that residents in Watford were seeing in all the national and regional media about how local elections had just taken place.
The issue has had a little interest from government since then (including a consultation paper in 2008 which contained one of my favourite pieces of civil-servant speak: “The consultation paper considers several questions but in particular looks at pertinent issues” – good choice of issues to consider!).
The Electoral Commission has give the issue a gentle nudge now and again too, pointing out for example that in the 2009 elections, “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”. The Commission’s Chief Executive, Jenny Watson, has also promoted the idea in an interview, whilst the Liberal Democrat former Chief Executive Lord Rennard has also expressed his support and there was strong public support for the idea in a poll commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.
2011 is a chance to put all those beliefs and thoughts to the test with a few well chosen pilots, most likely in council by-elections.
This year should also see a much neglected additional likely way of raising turnout properly investigated: increasing the number of polling stations so that people have less far to travel to vote. This is a greatly under-researched area, and has not ever been tested directly in Britain. However, aside from the common-sense thought that shorter travel distance to polling stations may increase likelihood to vote, there is also some practical evidence from an analysis of voters in Brent over 20 years: “we conclude 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”. Research in the US also points to a similar conclusion. (Thanks to Stuart Wilks-Heeg for highlighting this research to me.)
It may be that neither weekend voting nor more polling stations raises turnout. But there is good reason to believe that they may – and neither comes with the drawbacks of mandatory all postal voting nor with the well-established track-record of failure of internet and mobile phone voting. If the government wants to do more than issue vague exhortations to people to vote, it should put both these ideas to the test.
Footnote: there is a third thing that should be tried, and which is worth doing whether or not it nudges up turnout – fix the dreadful design of polling cards.
A shorter version of this post previously appeared on Liberal Conspiracy