The Electoral Commission gets it wrong on turnout

Here’s the email I’ve sent to Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission:

Dear Jenny Watson,

I was rather surprised at the introduction to your speech earlier today to the UCL Constitution Unit where you painted what seems to me a very misleading picture of what is happening to turnout in British elections.

I appreciate that is a fairly strong criticism, so I hope you won’t mind me justifying it by taking parts of your speech and commenting on them in detail.

After talking about recent political scandals, you said:

One of the immediate measures of the impact of these events is turnout at the recent elections. Turnout for the European elections across the UK was just 34 per cent, against a European average of 43 per cent.

However, turnout in the UK has been lower than the European average in every European election since and including the first one in 1979. The mere fact of it being lower again does not tell us about the “impact of these events”.

The one piece of evidence you present on that is wrong, for you say:

In Wales it was down to 30 per cent, an all-time low.

In 2004 the European elections coincided with local elections across all of Wales. In 2009 they did not. Given that combining local and European elections on the same day consistently raises European election turnout, saying turnout fell between 2004 and 2009 is not making a like-for-like comparison. It is simply a reflection of the change in electoral rules.

Moreover, turnout was not “an all time-low”. As the House of Commons Library reports, turnout in Wales in 1999 – the last time European and local elections didn’t coincide in Wales – was 28%. If any long term trend can be drawn, it is that turnout in Wales is on the up, not “at an all-time low”.

You went on to say that:

County council elections tell a similar story. Few seats in the shires polled above 40 per cent, compared to 60 or even 70 per cent last time.

Whilst true, that is a highly misleading comparison. Last time the county elections were on the same day as a general election, and again it is a well established pattern that having both elections on the same day pulls up turnout in local elections. All those figures reflect is a change in how the elections are structured. It doesn’t tell us that the public are becoming more or less willing to vote in local elections.

Because of the changing rules around European elections, it is hard to find solid like-for-like comparisons to make. But I would give you the example of London in 2009 and in 1999. In both years, there was no all-postal voting and nor were there other elections on the same day (as was the case in 2004). What happened to turnout? It soared by 10.3%.

So not only did your speech present information in a misleadingly gloomy way, genuine ’good news’ was also left out.

Does this matter? I believe it does, not only because of the principle – the chair of the Electoral Commission should get electoral facts right – but also because of the impact. Painting inaccurate pictures of people’s unwillingness to vote will, if it has any impact, simply discourage people from voting.

I appreciate that these points in your speech may well have been researched for you by someone else and that you may have been repeating the information in good faith.

I hope that you will therefore carefully reconsider the evidence as to what happened to turnout in June and present a more accurate – and indeed thereby more hopeful – picture in future.

Yours sincerely

Mark Pack

UPDATE: Jenny Watson has responded to this post.