Should election voting switch to weekends?

Last year I speculated that weekend voting may be the next trend in efforts to raise turnout:

Weekend voting has been discussed for a long time. Back in 1991, for example, the all-party Hansard Society’s report Agenda for Change discussed moving voting to a Sunday and highlighted that the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) backed this idea. Similarly, in 1997, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that weekend voting should be tested out.

Partly as a result of this, the system of election pilots that was then put in motion by the 1999 Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures and then the 2000 Representation of the People Act included weekend voting in the list of ideas to try out.

However, in the event only Watford in 2000 tried out weekend voting. It was not a success at raising turnout, though the evidence is arguable. All the other elections that May took place on the preceding Thursday, so the national and regional media coverage seen by people in Watford between the Thursday and their own polling days was that the local elections had already taken place. That media coverage may well have depressed turnout by making people think voting had happened rather than was yet to happen. In addition, six polling stations were moved from their usual locations. The net result is that the evidence is inconclusive – and anyway this was only one pilot…

The Electoral Commission looks to be trying to kick some life into the issue again with its report on the June 2009 European and local elections.

In the report the Electoral Commission highlights that, “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.” Such findings have to be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s easy to say that in a hypothetical situation you would be more likely to do something that is generally considered a good thing to do. However, were the number much lower then that would have been a strong argument against weekend voting, so this finding certainly keeps the issue open.

Now the former Liberal Democrat Chief Executive, Chris Rennard, has promoted the idea of weekend voting in a letter to The Times tying it to the topical question of when election counts are held:

It is obviously desirable for counting to follow soon after the closure of polling stations. It is also important that there is no loss of accuracy in the counting process as a result of counting staff suffering from sleep deprivation. Those of us used to losing sleep in hard-fought elections should understand this.

We have had a number of experiments with voting processes in recent years; but none of them has properly addressed these competing demands or significantly improved turnouts. Other countries have a much more satisfactory system based on weekend voting (letter, Feb 12).

Schools need not be closed and education disrupted. The option of voting over two days and at reasonable times on a Saturday or a Sunday would increase the opportunity to vote. It would also avoid religious objections to being able to vote on only one of these days. Security of ballot boxes could be maintained overnight, just as when we vote in European elections on a Thursday and count the votes on a Sunday.

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