What the media didn’t tell you about the Bedford Mayor election

Good news, though you’d be hard press to spot it from the media reports. On a like-for-like basis turnout was up significantly in the Bedford Mayor election this week.

In the first Mayor election, in October 2002, turnout was just 25% whilst this Thursday it was up to 31%. Six percentage points is a big increase, particularly from a base of only 25%.

Ah, you might be saying – but wasn’t turnout higher in the Mayor election in between those two? Yes, in the May 2007 Mayoral election in Bedford turnout was 41%. However, that election coincided with local elections in Bedford. Combining a low turnout election with higher turnout local elections raises the turnout of the former to the latter’s level. It is the same as with European elections: they have turnout lower than local elections, so combining the two raises European turnout to local levels.

That is why the more illuminating comparison is the like-for-like one: 2009 versus 2002, 31% up from 25%.

As I’ve commented before on occasions of other promising turnout news (here and here), the media is extremely reluctant to mention turnout good news stories. I don’t know exactly why. I’m sure it isn’t a deliberate conspiracy, but more a matter I suspect of increasing turnout being a story that is so far off the main media agenda that the evidence for it is not seen or looked for.

The general assumption is that the turnout story is bad, and if there aren’t numbers immediately to hand to show that then there is no story to report – rather than digging to see if there might actually be a good news story. The assumption of bad news, with the result that the evidence is either missed or misquoted, is one the Electoral Commission has also fallen prey to.

These traits are demonstrated all the more in an election such as the Bedford Mayor election which is (wrongly, as James Graham points out) given a low media priority. As a result the reports are brief with often no mention of turnout figures and even when it comes to vote share reports often are only of raw totals, without percentages or the numbers being put in the context of past results.

In this case the media errors and omissions matter because one of the most powerful influences on turnout is whether or not people think other people are voting. Consistently getting the true situation wrong is more than a statistical problem; it depresses turnout.

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