The plans to cut election expenses may be dead but there are still lessons to learn

Blink and you might have missed it: first details of a discussion about ways to cut the costs of running elections are leaked and then Jack Straw promptly disowns them and kills off the discussion.

Given how weak the proposals were – and the relatively small sums involved – I think that was the right decision by Straw and, although he and Liberal Democrats are usually not the best of friends, I think there’ll be widespread agreement in the Lib Dems with his comment, “Democracy has to be paid for”. Ideas such as replacing the general election freepost leaflets with one booklet would go quite against the current appetite from the public to hear more from individual candidates about what the believe and what they want to do.

There are, though, three lessons to learn from the ideas that were floated.

Democracy is done on the cheap

First, democracy is run extremely cheaply in the UK. The full list of ideas includes highly controversial major cuts to the conduct of elections, yet none would be expected to save anywhere near £10m. Compared to the sums bandied about when Whitehall departments talk about major cuts in other areas of nationwide activity, those sums are small.

Second, those sums do not look that much bigger when compared instead with two other areas of major (possible) electoral expenditure – the costs of the CORE project (a good runner for any ‘worst Government IT project’ prize) or the Electoral Commission’s own running costs (annual budget: £24 million). Indeed, the question of looking closely at the EC’s expenditure levels and priorities is one on which I mostly agree with with David Cameron’s comments. There are some areas where I think the Electoral Commission should do more, but overall there is more than enough scope for sensible cutbacks to both cover those and save money overall.

Where Robin Cook got it wrong

Third, the lack of solid evidence on which to base any debate around proposals to cut the number of polling stations is an indictment of the government’s previous electoral pilots projects – and, indirectly, of Robin Cook.

It sounds reasonable, and there is good anecdotal evidence, that the more polling stations there are, the easier it is for people to vote and therefore the higher turnout will be. (Update: there is also academic evidence to support this.)

However, other experiments with making it easier for people to vote fall into two camps. First, automatically supplying everyone with postal ballot papers at home (i.e. all-postal ballots) significantly raises turnout, even if at the cost of other problems. Second, every other innovation to make it easier for people to vote (such as early voting) doesn’t have much of an impact on turnout.

All-postal ballots are the only exception to the experience so far that making it easier for people to vote doesn’t do much to raise turnout. So it’s not exactly unreasonable to doubt how much of an impact increasing or decreasing the number of polling stations really would have.

Anecdotal evidences only takes you so far (and on the basis of what I’ve seen, I think the number of polling stations can have a significant impact on turnout – but I accept that the evidence so far is pretty thin). It shouldn’t be that difficult to put together rigorous statistical data on the question, given that the combination of marked registers, full postal addresses and locations of polling stations provides a wealth of geographical data that could be crunched.

But that’s not been done, and so we are operating in the dark. Arguments for saving money by cutting the number of polling stations should be based on that sort of rigorous data.

Similarly, though, we’ve been through a decade of so of experiments with ways of raising turnout with tens of millions of pounds spent – and again, we’ve not had data or experiments to show if increasing the number of polling stations would raise turnout significantly.

Why are we so much in the dark? That’s because an awful lot of the piloting and analysis has been around internet and SMS voting.  Even though right from the start it was clear from the pilots that they did little to raise turnout, there were persisted with year after year, taking time and money that could have been spent on learning about other issues – such as the impact of varying the number of polling stations.

For that, Robin Cook was largely responsible for pulling out of thin air a government target that the next general election but one would be an “e-enabled” one – even though at the time of setting the target, the pilots were not showing any grounds for believing that this would be an effective way to raise turnout.

Hence after the expenditure of much time and money we still are operating far too much on the dark on questions of turnout – not just in the case of polling stations but also on basics such as systematic collection and analysis of turnout data (a job that would bring more benefits and at lower cost than some of the hugely expanded and detailed, but incomplete and so unenlightening, financial data the Electoral Commission  now puts efforts into collecting).

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