Last week the local election followed recent trends, with a low turnout of about 32%. Rain during the day didn’t help, but it’s debatable as to which of a number of factors has the biggest impact. One Dutch study reported last week that – to a mathematically precise point – every inch of rain means a 1% reduction in turnout, and a 10 degrees increase in temperature means a 1% increase in turnout. I’m not entirely convinced.
Anyway, it doesn’t explain why 68% of people didn’t vote.
We know that in the 2010 general election, only 44% of those aged 18-24 voted, whereas 76% of those over 65 voted. There’s only a 50/50 chance of first-time voters actually using their vote. So an increasing number of people who are inclined to vote in a particular election don’t know how to do it. During these local elections I had several doorstep discussions with people who told me “I’ve never voted – how do I go about it?”
The incredible cacophony of sales material and opportunities that assail our eyes and ears every day of the week doesn’t help. Local political debate takes place on a shoestring, involving volunteers, and it’s not surprising that it often gets drowned out.
Disenchantment with politics is reinforced by a lot of the radio and television coverage. “It’s all a game” the commentators seem to say – but it isn’t a game for the thousands of volunteers in every party who want a better local community in a better world. And it isn’t a game for those who are affected by the result of an election and the consequent changes in policy.
So while I don’t want our democracy to be threatened in the sort of way that would shock people into engagement and voting, something surely needs to be done.
My first suggestion is to reduce the voting age to 14 – an age which I find young people far better informed and sensibly engaged than was the case in the past – so that everybody takes part in the voting process once before leaving full-time education. They will then know how to vote if and when they come to engage with political issues later in life.
My second suggestion is to cancel or delay the move to “individual registration”. When introduced in Northern Ireland to improve the accuracy of the register it also led to a considerable drop in the numbers registering, The basic human right is “the right to vote”, not a “right to register”. Three million people are already missing from the registers, so this development is alarming unless far more is done to get a “complete register” as a starting point.