» Elections ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Though it is a comment, from a Lib Dem Voice thread on Conference accreditation:

It sometimes strikes me that some people see winning elections as an end in itself, without giving very much thought about why you are trying to win them or what you should do when you have. And paradoxically, it’s that kind of attitude that has paved the way for electoral disaster.

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Someone’s started up a petition on the Number 10 website to introduce STV in local elections in England. I’ve long thought that this would be a decent step to improving local democracy and accountability, so if you feel the same, why not go and sign it?

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I wrote last week about the odd situation in Gwynedd, where a lack of candidates forced a non-election in one ward, and that ward turned out to be crucial for overall control of the Council.

Nominations for the ensuing by-election have now closed, and the electors of Bryncrug/Llanfihangel sadly haven’t shown a continued spirit of anarchism by refusing to nominate anyone again. Instead, having not been able to find a single candidate a few weeks, this time they’ve found five, including three different independents.

However, it looks like the election won’t be as crucial as originally thought, as Plaid Cymru have now done a deal with Labour to run the Council. I’ll keep an eye out for other updates as this campaign rolls on, though.

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A couple of days ago, we had the story of the council ward in Wales with no candidates, and now we have the story of the ballot box in Glasgow that may or may not contain no votes.

It seems that Glasgow Council has just discovered that one of the ballot boxes used for the Langside ward was recorded as having contained no votes, but that, on closer examination (or perhaps just looking in the box) it seems that there were some in there. How many there are, I’m not sure, but from what I can find on Glasgow Council’s site, the polling district in question (Battlefield Primary) contains up to 3434 voters. (The report on polling districts is a little confusing, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s proposing creating one district with 3434 voters, or two sub-districts at the same polling station with 2,405 and 1,029 voters. If the latter is the case, then the box could be for the smaller of the two districts and only be for 1,029 voters.)

The official result is here, and Lallands Peat Worrier breaks it down in more detail here, complete with a graph that makes it easier to see where transferred votes (Scotland uses STV for local elections) have gone. What’s clear from that is that while the number of votes in there might not effect the SNP and Labour candidates who won on first preferences, the battle for third place is very close, and a few votes could change the outcome dramatically. And even with an ‘empty’ ballot box, they still managed a 35% turnout.

Beyond the election itself, there are some important questions to ask, starting with just how a box with votes in it got recorded as being empty. However, that then opens up a whole set of other questions, notably starting with how no one raised an eyebrow at a ballot box (and the BBC report refers to it as ‘the’ ballot box for the polling station, not ‘a’) coming back empty. At that point, someone ought to have checked with the staff running the polling station to see if no one had come in to vote during the day. There’s also questions about how none of the agents or candidates spotted that a ballot box wasn’t being counted, too.

Officially, though, that ballot box has no votes in it – that’s what the declaration of result says, and that stands as fact, despite what the evidence might say, until someone gets an election court to say otherwise.

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One of the things about having a lot of local elections taking place at the same time is that it’s possible for a lot of rare situations to arise, just by the pure chance of probabilities. And sometimes, if you’re very lucky, two or more of them will crash into each other and create a very interesting situation.

Which is what’s happened in Gwynedd after the recent set of local elections. It all started with a political curiosity back in April, when it was announced that no candidate had stood for election in the Bryncrug ward. It was an odd situation, seemingly caused when an independent councillor decided to retire but no one stood to replace him. So, an odd situation, but one that was likely to emerge somewhere in Wales at sometime, given the sheer number of small single-member wards there where candidates are often returned unopposed.

However, that wasn’t the final twist in this little tale. The voters of Gwynedd had their say last week and this what they said:
Gwynedd election result from BBC News
Yes, 37 Plaid Cymru councillors and 37 others. Perfectly tied, except for the fact that Gwynedd Council has 75 seats, which means that the Bryncrug by-election goes from being an interesting little anomaly to potentially the election that will determine who controls the Council. I can’t help but wonder if they’ll suddenly find hordes of politicians descending on this one small ward in an attempt to root out every last potential voter. There’s almost a potential modern Ealing comedy there – all you need to do is discover some hugely valuable asset that makes control of the Council absolutely vital between two bitterly divided sides, and the hilarity will no doubt ensue.

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One constant from across the country following Thursday’s elections is laments about the low turnout. Even by the usually low standards for local elections, where getting over 40% turnout is seen as an achievement, Thursday’s turnout was pretty woeful.

Now, it may be possible to come up with some explanations for the specifically low turnout this year – I do wonder how much campaigning by everyone was limited by the poor weather of the preceding month, which reduced voter awareness – but we can’t escape the fact that turnout is generally poor at just about all elections in Britain, especially when you compare it to other countries. For instance, turnout at the French Presidential election two weeks ago was just under 80%, compared to the 65% managed at the last UK general election.

There are plenty of reasons for why turnout is so low, and I don’t think that any one proposed solution is a magic bullet that will solve all the problems. To my mind, there’s been a systemic failure over decades to engage the people in the process of government, nationally and locally, and I’m currently thinking of a series of posts on the subject, but to correct those sort of failures will take time. Hopefully not the same amount of time it took to cause the problem and let it fester, but it’s not something that can be rectified quickly.

In the short term, though, there are things we can do to see if they have an effect on turnout and voter engagement. To my mind, the first thing we ought to experiment with is following the example of many other countries – usually with higher voter turnouts – and moving elections to weekends. I would suggest moving elections until 2014 to either Saturdays, Sundays or a combination of the two, then reviewing the effect it’s had and deciding whether to make the switch permanent for the 2015 general election and beyond.

Moving voting to weekends would not only be putting it a time when people have more free time and are close to their polling stations – consider that on most Thursdays, many voters are at work, usually a good distance away from anywhere they can go to vote – but it would also make it easier for people to be involved on the campaigning side of the election. For most political activists, to be involved in an election on a Thursday they have to take at least a day off work. And yes, some people do work at weekends, but I suspect you would find it much easier to get people involved at weekends, and that would help to get more people voting. The other advantage would that be that if it was a lot easier for people to vote during the day, polling stations wouldn’t have to stay open until late into the evening. Counting of votes could start much earlier, and people might be able to hear the result for their area without having to stay up until the small hours.

As I said, weekend voting isn’t a universal panacea for all our political problems, but given how low turnout and engagement is now, I don’t think there’s anything to lose by trying it. In contrast to other methods people suggest – even more postal voting, internet voting and the like – it doesn’t introduce security risks or reduce the secrecy of the ballot, and could be accomplished with minimal changes to the existing voting infrastructure. So why aren’t we trying it?

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First up, the result here in Castle Ward was:

Jo Hayes (Liberal Democrat) 861
Peter Lynn (Green Party 395)
Shamim Rashid (Conservative Party) 382
Bob Fisher (Labour) 285
Ron Levy (UKIP) 206

Thanks to everyone who voted to make Jo our next councillor, and with a larger majority than me!

Yet again, there was very little change in Colchester, with Wivenhoe Quay the only seat to change hands, with Labour gaining it from the Tories. The full results are:

Berechurch: Labour 1084, Lib Dem 286, UKIP 219, Conservative 192, Green 52
Dedham and Langham: Conservative 596, Lib Dem 81, Labour 81, Green 78
East Donyland: Labour 488, Conservative 209, Green 39, Lib Dem 21
Harbour: Lib Dem (Julia Havis) 663, Labour 298, UKIP 91, Conservative 84, Green 77
Highwoods: Independent 1211, Conservative 167, Labour 145, Lib Dem 110, UKIP 80, Green 72
Lexden: Conservative 833, Lib Dem 390, Labour 174, Green 131
Marks Tey: Conservative 313, Labour 162, Lib Dem 50, Green 50
Mile End: Lib Dem (Martin Goss) 1467, Conservative 535, Labour 184, Green 91
New Town: Lib Dem (Peter Higgins) 771, Labour 273, Green 166, Conservative 131, UKIP 120
Prettygate: Conservative 1048, Lib Dem 665, Labour 332, Green 177
Shrub End Lib Dem (Nigel Offen) 745, Conservative 514, Labour 334, Green 106
St Andrews: Labour 926, Independent 194, Lib Dem 175, UKIP 108, Conservative 107
St Anne’s: Lib Dem (Helen Chuah) 825, Labour 305, Conservative 234, Green 130
St John’s: Lib Dem (Paul Smith) 994, Conservative 333, Labour 136, Green 81
Stanway: Lib Dem (Laura Sykes) 1194, Conservative 520, Labour 297, Green 111
Tiptree: Conservative 772, Labour 580, Green 156, Lib Dem 97
West Mersea: Conservative 1196, Green 138, Lib Dem 130, Labour 67
Wivenhoe Cross: Lib Dem (Jon Manning) 477, Conservative 192, Labour 175, Green 59
Wivenhoe Quay: Labour 915, Conservative 559, Green 159, Lib Dem 122

Full results are on the Council website.