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?