Why we should try weekend voting

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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?

3 thoughts on “Why we should try weekend voting”

  1. It was tried in some of the voting experiment pilots in between about 1999 and 2003 and was found to have very little impact.

    Whether its worth looking at again is open to question but it has been tried.

  2. “on most Thursdays, many voters are at work, usually a good distance away from anywhere they can go to vote”

    Don’t you mean, “on most Thursdays rich middle class office workers who commute are working a good distance away from where they can vote”?

    Neither the distance or the having weekends free thing are likely to apply to D/Es and they are the least likely to be engaged and vote – I have NEVER had a job which did not require me to work both Saturdays and Sundays, and I know lots of other people in my socio-economic bracket who are in a similar place.

  3. Hywel – but when it was tried it was only in limited areas (IIRC, individual councils, not even across whole regions) so national media coverage etc was still saying ‘vote on Thursday’. IMO, it should be done across the country (or at least across those areas that are voting if it’s done for a non-national election like the 2013 set) to see the effect.

    Jennie – From my experience, it applies to most workers. I was somewhat garbling in another point about the general impracticality of voting for many people because of being assigned to a particular polling station, but the point was that whether you’re commuting to the city or having to trek across town for your minimum-wage shift at Sainsbury’s, people who are working on a polling day tend to be a distance away from where they have to vote. I’m not denying that people have to work on weekends but I believe fewer people work on Sundays than any other day of the week, so it’s an element worth considering.

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