I’m sure we’re all aware that the older you are, the more likely you are to vote, with the effect that politicians often ignore the needs of the young in favour of the old. After all, you’re always going to be more interested in the views of the people who can put you in power rather than the ones who won’t.

This gives us an odd situation where not only are one group’s views and interests favoured over others, that group is the one who’ll experience the least of any consequences from the decisions made by government. Your average first time voter will be around for 50 to 60 years after they’ve voted, living with the consequences of what’s been decided, while an older voter is only going to be around for a fraction of that time. Partly because of their own decision not to vote, those who’ll be affected the most by the decision in an election are likely to have the least influence on it.

What this also means is that governments and voters end up giving much more consideration to the short-term than the long term. Voters who are still going to be around in 30 or 40 years time and dealing with the long-term consequences of decisions made today count just the same as those who won’t be, and the different participation rates effectively make their views worth less in the process than older voters. There are potentially huge social, economic and especially environmental changes happening in that period, but they don’t feature in election campaigns. How many times did politicians talk about things after 2020 in the recent campaign, let alone the 2040s and beyond?

So here’s a thought experiment to try out – what if younger people’s votes counted for more in elections? Not just in terms of getting them to participate at the same rate or higher than older voters, but actually giving them more votes, with your number of votes tapering off as you get older? Everyone would still get a vote, but the power of it would drop as you get older and your stake in the future that’s being decided gets less. Say 18-25 year olds get five votes, 26-40 year olds get four, 40-50 year olds get three, from 50 to 65 you have two votes and finally just one vote if you’re over 65.

How would that effect elections and the way government worked? Would the prospect of a greater say mean the younger you were, the more likely you were to turn out? Would governments have to look more to the long term to get those votes, or would it just reverse the direction of short term pandering with the young getting a lot of freebies in the expectation that those too young to vote (or not even born) would foot the bill?


I’ve been looking through the election numbers (and thanks to Stanno on Twitter for a spreadsheet packed full of election data) and here’s a few things I’ve noticed.

The Liberal Democrats lost votes everywhere. There aren’t any chinks of light in seats where we managed to gain votes. The smallest fall was Dunbartonshire East, where Jo Swinson went down just 2.4%, and the biggest was Brent Central with the total 35.8% down on 2010. All four of the smallest falls were in Scotland (aside from Dunbarton East, they were 2.8% in Edinburgh West, 3.3% in Gordon, and 3.7% in Argyll & Bute) which suggests both hard campaigning in those seats and that anti-SNP tactical voting was a factor. Outside of Scotland, the least worst falls were David Ward in Bradford East (down 4.2%) and Julian Huppert in Cambridge (4.3%).

Labour’s share of the vote went up, and by more than the Tories. It was a terrible night for Labour, voters deserted Ed Miliband etc is the narrative, which ignores that their share of the vote went up by 1.5%, while the Tory share was up just 0.7%. In conventional terms, there was actually a swing from Tory to Labour, but this time the Tories were able to deploy their vote much more efficiently. On a crude measure, the Tories had only two constituencies (Hampshire North and Maidenhead) where they got over 65% of the vote – Labour had 17. There’s a possibility that without Scotland, the bias in the electoral system has now switched, and it’s Labour piling up votes in safe seats, while the Tories gain more seats with a similar share of the vote.

Where have all the voters gone?. 11,560,484 voters. That’s a huge number of people and more than anyone’s got an election since Tony Blair in 1997. Unfortunately, it’s also the number Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party got in 1992. David Cameron only got 11,300,303 voters on Thursday but national turnout was still only 66.1% despite the boost it got from the massive turnout in Scotland. The SNP have shown that it’s possible to engage non-voters, get them voting and change the rules of the game, but how does that happen in the rest of the country?

Turnout matters. It’s a theory I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I still think we make a mistake by treating all voters at all elections as a homogeneous group. I think we there are two distinct groups – those that generally turn out at all elections (with a possible subset of those who vote in local by-elections and PCC elections) and those that only vote at general elections – with different behaviour. For instance, UKIP got 4.3m votes at the European elections last year and 3.9m on Thursday. Once you take out a chunk to represent Tory protest voters who were never going to vote Farage at a General Election, it seems UKIP are very good at motivating voters to turn out for them at all elections, but not too good at persuading those who only vote at general elections to vote for them. Mark Reckless got almost exactly the same number of votes in Rochester and Strood that he got in the by-election, but lost his seat because Kelly Tolhurst (his Tory opponent both times) found 10,000 more voters for the general election.

I suspect a similar factor helped persuade Lib Dems that things wouldn’t be so bad: ‘Look at the local elections! Our vote’s holding up there!’ was the regular cry, but when that group who didn’t vote in local elections were added to the electorate, things went very bad. Differential turnout is a phenomenon that’s not been studied too much, and the corresponding phenomenon of differential enthusiasm amongst supporters of different parties is something I’ve seen put forward as a plausible suggested explanation for the polling errors.

That’s the main things I’ve spotted for now, but I do want to feed these numbers into SPSS sometime in the next few weeks, just to see what interesting figures I can draw out of them – I suspect there are a lot more stories to be told.

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Worth Reading 50: One L of a good time

Half a century down, how many more to go?

Leicester’s Mayor sacks the man supposed to scrutinise him – As many cities reject the idea of an elected Mayor, Jonathan Calder provides an example of why mayors don’t make for good governance.
Electoral Reform RIP – One year on and Milena Popova is still angry. I think she’s right to be, and for those people who think that the change of the electoral system is just around the corner, I suggest talking to the Australian republicans who voted no in their referendum to see how long they’ve been waiting.
The day after the count – Some interesting ideas to improve election turnout from Edinburgh Eye.
The religious fanatics behind Tory plans to block porn – Unity at Liberal Conspiracy explains some of the flaws in the ‘independent’ report that recommended the Government censoring the internet on your behalf.
So you want to get elected? Then think like a clown. Or a penguin – Amidst the usual sardonic humour of Charlie Brooker, an interesting point: “The problem for politicians is that their chosen sport looks increasingly weird and arcane in the present day – like water polo or lacrosse. The uniforms are antiquated, the rules are stifling, the action is boring, and they’re constantly terrified of upsetting their sponsors. The spectators don’t understand the lingo, don’t think there’s much skill involved, and suspect the game’s rigged anyway.”

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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?