Weekend voting: not ruled in, not ruled out

As part of Parliament’s deliberations over the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, this week the House of Lords debated the possibility of moving to weekend voting.

In The two electoral tests the Coalition should run, I made the point that,

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 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.

During the debate in the House of Lords on weekend voting Chris Rennard and other peers returned to the issue. Lord Rennard’s comments included,

Many noble Lords will know that I have long been an advocate of voting at weekends. They will also know how frustrated I feel that, among the many models piloted by the previous Labour Government to try to explore different ways of increasing turnout in local elections, only one pilot of weekend voting was ever undertaken-in one place, at one weekend-and that was of limited value. The idea of voting at weekends is not new; it has been floated and discussed in some form, but never properly debated in Parliament in such a way as to enable Parliament to decide the issue.

The Home Affairs Select Committee considered the issue in 1997; a Home Office working party looked at it in 1999; it was the subject of some limited debate when we permitted pilots as a result of the Representation of the People Act in 2000; the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister further considered the matter in a consultation paper in 2002; the then new Electoral Commission published a report on election timetables in June 2003 and again in 2007; that year, weekend voting was again floated as part of the Government’s Governance of Britain Green Paper; and a separate consultation paper was then published specifically on this issue in 2008.That was supposed to feed into a citizens’ summit, which would recommend whether or not to go ahead with weekend voting later in 2008. That summit never happened. We have never had a proper debate in Parliament to determine the issue.

The principle of weekend voting is simple: more people are at home and free to vote for more of the day at a weekend than they are on a weekday. One possibility is to give people two days over the weekend on which to vote. This would avoid potential problems with religious observance and give people more than twice as much opportunity to participate. Many noble Lords have participated in elections and those who have campaigned will know the frustration of trying to contact voters among the working population of a constituency, in the few hours before the polls close at 10 pm, in order to remind them to vote. They will also have had extensive experience of trudging the streets during the day on polling day and vainly knocking on the doors of people who are out at work. We try to encourage them to vote but know that they cannot.

All those involved in elections know that people who are contacted on polling day and reminded by parties to vote are significantly more likely to vote than those who are not. It stands to reason that if people are contacted during the weekend when they are at home and reminded to vote, they are significantly more likely to participate. All good democrats should agree that increasing participation in elections is a good thing, especially as turnout has declined in many recent elections.

Speaking for the government, fellow Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace said,

One might say in the Scottish context that this is a not proven verdict, but that does not mean to say that there should not be trials…

I am not standing at the Dispatch Box to say that the Government are about to launch an initiative with regard to weekend voting. However, picking up the point made by my noble friend Lord Newton, I want to make clear that we are not ruling it out. I want to reassure the House that not including something in this Bill will not rule out the possibility of us returning to this issue.

You can read the full debate here.

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