Friday, 16 November 2012

Low voter turnout is not inevitable

Today's Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales have seen a pitifully low turnout - down at a ridiculous twelve to sixteen per cent in the cases that have reported so far. Bristol's mayoralty election did a little big better at just under thirty per cent, but not much.

Cue lots of hand-wringing. Parties don't represent anyone, we'll be told. They're in terminal decline - especially as Labour has just lost its bid to elect its own candidate for mayor in Bristol. People are switching off from politics based on class and geography, and they're looking for new solutions - single-issue protests, perhaps, such as that propelling the United Kingdom Independence Party up the polls in yesterday's Corby by-election.

Some of this is probably fair enough. But much of it is exaggerated. We used to be told that voters in the United States (here, as so often, thought of as the very acme of the future) were tuning out and turning off. Except that in every US Presidential election between 1996 and 2008, turnout actually rose (above) - by eight per cent in total by the end of that period. Even though turnout's fallen away again a little this time, all the votes haven't been counted yet, and the numbers certainly won't have gone back to early-1990s lows. Ask African-American, Hispanic, young, female and gay voters whether they're losing faith in the Democratic Party. They're not.

There were lots of other reasons why people didn't want to vote today. They thought of Police Commissioners as an unwelcome American import. They thought that the previous local committee system wasn't all that bad. It was dark. It was November. There were no other council or parliamentary elections pulling in the punters.

Most of all, the supplementary vote system may be easy to understand (once you're told about, which many voters think they weren't) and cheap to administer. But it is a poor way to elect anyone to anything - as voters instinctively understand. It's too tactical - you have to imagine who might come in the top two, and then reserve your second preference for one of them. It puts all your eggs in one basket. And it usually favours the 'big' candidates, who'll always attract one of those two votes if you want one to count. That will often be one of the two remaining big political parties in this country - though it wasn't today in Bristol, with the local popularity and profile of George Ferguson breaking through against unpopular local parties.

Political dealignment? Well, there's some. It's the worst-attended election of all time in the UK. But there are other issues. We need to attend to those first.