Political

Weekend voting: still on the super-slow burner

I’ve been blogging for many years now about the merits of piloting weekend voting in Britain as a way to raise turnout. It could work for two reasons – first, more voters finding it easier to get the time to go and vote and, second, political parties having more volunteers to carry out their get out the vote activities on the day.

It’s true that the one pilot carried out in the UK (in Watford, back at the start of the century) was not a success, but there are good reasons for not relying on just the one data point, especially as it was done as part of the usual May round of local elections. As a result on the weekend when people were due to vote, the national and regional media was full of news about the results of the elections across the country, which was hardly a good backdrop against which to hope people would go and vote in the pilot.

As I wrote in 2011:

The issue has had a little interest from government since [the pilot in Watford] (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.

But despite some support from the Electoral Commission for the idea, it’s not really progressed much since.

Hence my interest in one particular part of the latest Parliamentary Committee report looking at the functioning of our democratic systems, published last week:

Phil Thompson, Research and Evaluation Manager at the Electoral Commission, told us of some views the Electoral Commission had received from the public in a recent opinion survey. The results included: 70% of people said they would support weekend voting…

Elsewhere in Europe it is common for elections to be held on the weekend—for the recent elections to the European Parliament, the UK was one of only three countries, the others being the Netherlands and Ireland, out of the 28 involved to hold elections on a weekday. Other countries, including the United States of America, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland hold elections on various weekdays. Several witnesses and written submissions stated that moving elections to the weekend could have a positive impact on voter engagement. Professor Patrick Dunleavy, Co-director of Democratic Audit, told us: “I think if you look across Europe the general pattern is that elections that are held on the weekend have a 10% higher turnout than elections that are held on working days. We think that is a pretty easy win. It has costs in terms of higher overtime pay or something like that, but if you were interested in increasing turnout, that would be a useful thing.”

Dr Toby James told us that “There is clear evidence that if you were to change the day of the election it would bring about an increase in turnout.” He cited research which indicated that holding elections on the weekend could increase turnout by between 6.8 and 10%, stating: “You have some variation in terms of what the research is saying there, but universally the evidence is that one positive effect would be, it seems, that more people would vote on a Sunday.”

However, not everyone was in favour of holding elections at the weekend. John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, told us that he thought moving elections to a nonweekday
“might encourage a few more people but I think you are talking about a few more people.” He also said that the previous Government had looked at the proposal and rejected it on the basis of cost and premises available.330 When the previous Government consulted on weekend voting, they found that a majority (53%) of respondents, and particularly those with a role in running elections (80%), favoured keeping elections on a week day.

A related suggestion was that polling stations could be open for several days, possibly including at least one weekend day. The evidence we received stated that this would increase the opportunities people had to participate at an election. One piece of written evidence, from David Green, took a slightly different view, suggesting that elections continue to be held on a weekday, but that the day be made a public holiday—to enable greater participation. It would be easier to plan for having a general election day on a public holiday in light of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which provided for future elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years. Mr Green stated that the intention of making election day a bank holiday would be to “make a national day of voting” so that it was “special”.

The idea of a “Democracy Day” fits closely with our view that greater esteem and excitement should return to the electoral process. We recommend that the Government explore further proposals for weekend voting, extending voting and designating election days as public holidays. We acknowledge the resource implications of some of these proposals, particularly for rural communities.

Slow, slow progress. But progress of a sort.

One thing missing completely as far as I could see from the committee’s consideration is another area that should be explored, as I also wrote about back in 2011:

A much neglected additional likely way of raising turnout [should be] 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.)

Hopefully their next report, due early next year, will put that right.

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