Lessons from America: ideas and caveats from the US midterm elections

This month, a new session of the United States Congress met for the first time since November’s mid-term elections. The election results brought mixed fortunes for the country’s main political parties. Although the Republicans retained control of the US Senate, the Democrats gained the seats they needed to take control of the House of Representatives.

Beyond the impact on American politics, the 2018 vote shone a light on the management of elections in the US, with a particular focus on registration and voting issues arising on election day. It’s worth taking a closer look to see if the midterms offer any lessons for the UK system of voting.

Voter Registration

Electoral registration is an important and often highly sensitive issue. The validity of elections depends on ensuring a high turnout, which means encouraging all eligible voters to ensure their names are on the electoral register.

In the United States, electoral registration is very complicated, as each of the fifty states has its own registration rules, processes, and deadlines. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law has described the US voter registration system as ‘broken’, and ‘a chief cause of long lines and election day chaos’

During the run-up to the mid-term elections, many states reported record numbers of voter registrations, reflecting intense media attention and the widely held view that the mid-terms represented a referendum on the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. On national voter registration day alone, 865,000 people registered to vote, compared to the 154,500 people who had registered in 2014.

However, concerns have been raised that some states have been making it harder for US citizens to register, particularly among African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalised groups. A report in The New York Times highlighted attempts in Alabama and several other states to require proof of citizenship before granting the right to register to vote in state and local elections. There were also reports that strict voter registration requirements had disproportionately disadvantaged students in New Hampshire, that poorly labelled forms prevented more than 300,000 voters in Arizona from updating their voter registration information, and that manipulation of voter rolls had been taking place in Georgia and Ohio.

One possible way of overcoming these problems is automatic voter registration (AVR). The Brennan Center for Justice reports that fifteen states and the District of Columbia have approved AVR, and more states are expected to join the list. The policy streamlines registration by making it opt-out instead of opt-in for eligible citizens who interact with government agencies. For example, under AVR anyone issued with a driver’s licence has their details passed to the electoral registration authorities and they are then automatically registered to vote.

The impact of AVR has been striking. Since Oregon became the first state in the US to implement AVR in 2016 voter registration rates have quadrupled, while in the first six months after AVR was implemented in Vermont in 2017, registration rates jumped by 62%.

Election day voting issues

The record numbers registering to vote was a foretaste of the turnout for the mid-term elections.  An estimated 114 million votes were cast by voters for the House of Representatives. This was a significant increase on the 83 million votes cast in 2014, and the first time a midterm election surpassed 100 million votes.

However, the figure could have been higher. Across the US, there were reports of delays in polling stations opening, long queues of people waiting to vote and extensions to the scheduled closing times. In many cases, the problems were caused by technical issues and equipment failures due to the use of ageing voting machines. Unlike UK voters, for many years, Americans have been using a variety of devices to cast their votes, from punch card systems to touch-screen technology. However, in the most recent elections, 41 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old, and most existing systems are no longer manufactured.

From broken ballot scanners in New York to machines changing votes in South Carolina and untested technology in Michigan, the technical difficulties heightened fears that inadequate equipment could undermine faith in democracy.

Another election day issue concerned the requirement for voter ID. Ten US states require eligible citizens to present some form of government-issued identification before they can vote. But 11% of Americans don’t have the relevant ID and certain groups, such as black communities, those on low incomes and students are even less likely to have the required documentation.

The problem has been compounded by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act introduced to protect minority voters. The 1965 Act required states to obtain permission from the federal government before changing voting laws. The 2013 ruling in effect struck down practices that helped make sure voting was fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

Following the ruling, the state of Alabama enacted a strict voter ID law, which remained in force for the 2018 mid term elections. The state dismissed claims from civil rights groups that an estimated 118,000 potential voters lacked the necessary photo ID.

Lessons for the UK?

Registration

In 2014, the UK government replaced household registration with Individual Electoral Registration. While the new system improved the accuracy of the register and helped to counter fraud, there are concerns that certain groups of voters – such as students, private renters and young adults –  might be falling off the electoral register.

The success of AVR in the US suggests that this method of registration can ensure that these and other groups don’t miss out on voting, for example because they’ve forgotten to register after moving home.  The UK’s Electoral Commission has advocated an automatic registration scheme similar to that in Oregon, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government, from getting a driving licence to applying for benefits.

Voting technology

Much has been made of internet voting as a way of improving turnout at elections. Estonia has pioneered online voting for parliamentary elections, but only a few countries have followed their example. In the UK, pilot schemes involving internet voting have taken place at local level, but there are no plans to introduced online voting for national polls. However, e-counting (the electronic counting of ballot papers) is becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe. An e-counting solution developed by Idox has been used successfully for elections in Scotland, Norway and Malta, resulting in considerable  improvements in speed and accuracy of results.  The problems caused by obsolete technology in the US elections underline the importance of ensuring the mechanics of elections systems are up to delivering transparent, fair democracy.

Voter ID

Concerns about election fraud has prompted the UK government to consider voter ID. During last year’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations. While some saw the trials as successful, others argued that the fact that hundreds of voters were turned away because they did not have the relevant documentation proves the policy of voter ID is misguided. Further trials of voter ID have been proposed, but these are being challenged.  The American experiences of voter ID raises questions about the exclusion of citizens from exercising their democratic rights.

Final thoughts

Delivering transparent, fair and accessible elections is never straightforward, but the challenge is all the greater in one of the world’s biggest democracies. America’s midterm elections may have changed the landscape of the country’s politics, but they’ve also provided ideas and caveats to exercise the minds of electoral administrators on this side of the Atlantic.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on elections:

Reeling in the year: a look back at 2018

It’s been another busy year for The Knowledge Exchange Blog. We’ve covered a variety of subjects, from housing and the environment to education and planning. So as the year draws to a close, now’s a good time to reflect on some of the subjects we’ve been blogging about during 2018.

Bibliotheraphy, walkability and family learning

We started the year with health and wellbeing in mind. Our first blog post of 2018 highlighted the increasing application of “bibliotherapy”:

“The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.”

In February, we blogged about family learning, where parents engage in learning activities with their children. This can involve organised programmes such as Booksmart, but activities such as reading to children or singing with them can also be described as family learning:

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

In recent years, growing numbers of cities and towns have introduced “shared spaces”, where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers share the same, deregulated space. As we reported in March, the practice has proved divisive, with supporters claiming that shared spaces can improve the urban environment, revitalise town centres, and reduce congestion, while opponents believe that shared space schemes – particularly the removal of kerbs and crossings – are dangerous and exclusionary for vulnerable groups of pedestrians, people with disabilities and those with reduced mobility.

In April, we took the opportunity to promote the Idox Information Service, highlighting a selection of the hundreds of items added to our database since the beginning of 2018. All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

Voters, apprentices and city trees

Local elections in May prompted us to blog about the voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Many people with dementia still hold strong political feelings, and know their own opinion when it comes to voting for political parties or in a referendum. However, the process of voting can often present them with specific challenges. It is up to local authority teams and their election partners to make the process as transparent and easy for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s as possible. Specific challenges include not spoiling the ballot, and the ability to write/ see the ballot paper and process the information quickly enough.”

A year after the launch of the government’s Apprenticeship Levy in June, we highlighted a report from the Reform think tank which suggested that significant reforms were needed to improve England’s apprenticeship system. Among the recommended changes were a renewed focus on quality over quantity, removal of the 10% employer co-investment requirement and making Ofqual the sole quality assurance body for maintaining apprenticeship standards.

The shortage of affordable housing continues to exercise the minds of policy makers, and in July we blogged about its impact on the private rented sector:

“In many cases people view the private rented sector as being a stop gap for those not able to get social housing, and not able to afford a deposit for a mortgage. Although in many instances they may be right, the demographic of those renting privately now is changing, and becoming more and more varied year on year, with many young professionals and families with children now renting privately.”

The long, hot summer of 2018 was one to remember, but its effect on air quality in urban areas underlined the need to combat the pollution in our air. In August, we blogged about an innovation that could help to clear the air:

“Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.”

Planning, polarisation and liveable cities

September saw another highly successful Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference. It opened with a thought-provoking presentation by Greg Lloyd, professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who challenged delegates to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

In October, we focused on the ever-increasing job polarisation affecting the labour market:

In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%). As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown.”

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, presenting significant challenges to local authorities who have to try and make their cities work for everyone. In November, we reported from The Liveable City conference in Edinburgh, which showcased ideas from the UK and Denmark on how to make cities more attractive for residents and visitors:

“A great example of the reinvention of a post-industrial area came from Ian Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s biggest and most ambitious regeneration programme. When it comes to recovering from the demise of old industries, the East End of Glasgow has seen many false dawns. As Ian explained, when Clyde Gateway was launched ten years ago, the local community were sceptical about the programme’s ambitions. But they were also ready to engage with the project. A decade on, the area has undergone significant physical generation, but more importantly this has taken place in partnership with the local people.”

Although much has been made of the government’s claim that austerity is coming to an end, many local authorities are still struggling to provide services within tight financial constraints. One of our final blogs this year reported on local councils that are selling their assets to generate revenue:

“In a bid to increase affordable housing supply, for example, Leicester City Council has sold council land worth more than £5m for less than £10 as part of deals with housing associations.”

Brexit means….

Overshadowing much of public policy in 2018 has been the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Our blog posts have reflected the uncertainties posed by Brexit with regard to science and technology, local authority funding and academic research.

As we enter 2019, those uncertainties remain, and what actually happens is still impossible to predict. As always, we’ll continue to blog about public policy and practice, and try to make sense of the important issues, based on evidence, facts and research.

To all our readers, a very happy Christmas, and our best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Identity politics: despite concerns about disenfranchising voters, ID voting may be here to stay

With the exception of Northern Ireland, citizens voting in UK elections don’t usually need to verify that they are who they say they are. But in last month’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations.

The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing. Voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking were advised to bring a passport or driving licence to the polling station on May 3.

ID voting in practice

While most voters in the pilot areas had the correct documents, 340 did not and were not allowed to vote. A further 688 people were initially turned away, but later returned with the correct ID documents.

Although the local authorities in the pilot areas ran awareness campaigns to highlight the changes, voters were surprised to find they needed ID to vote. One Bromley resident who was turned away at the polls told The Independent he was shocked to be denied his vote because he did not have a bank card or passport. As a consequence, he decided not to return to the polling station with the correct ID:

“I’m choosing not to vote, and I’ve never done that before. I think people who have problems with their ID will certainly be disenfranchised, even if they’ve lived here for many years.

In Woking, Labour councillor Tahir Aziz said a man was turned away from voting because his form of ID, a Surrey County Council document with his picture on it, was not accepted.

A “great success” or a “mistaken policy”?

After the polls closed, the impact of the ID trials was assessed.  Ray Morgan, the returning officer at Woking Borough Council, claimed the pilot was a great success, with 99.73% of voters providing the correct identification documents:

‘Following our recent experiences in the polling stations on May 3, I see no reason why bringing ID to vote cannot be embedded in our democratic process and have already expressed my desire to the Cabinet Office that Woking continues to participate in any future trials.

However, Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement argued that the voter ID policy was misguided:

“The Electoral Commission found that out of nearly 45 million votes cast in the local and General Election in 2017, there were only 28 cases of alleged voter fraud. That’s less than 0.00007% or one case for every 1.6 million votes cast. And out of those 28 cases, there was only one conviction. But instead of listening to the experts and the vast evidence base, the Government decided to implement a mistaken policy with the full knowledge that voters could be disenfranchised. The fact that voters were denied their right to vote is proof that voter ID has no place in our democracy.”

ID for all?

Despite these criticisms, the UK government is pleased with the trials, and seems intent on making voter ID a requirement for all UK elections:

“The success of the voter ID pilots proves that this is a reasonable and proportionate measure to take and voters were fully aware of the changes on polling day. We will evaluate the pilots before announcing the next steps in delivering voter ID nationally.”

Around 11 million people in the UK – a quarter of the electorate – are believed to own neither a passport nor a driving licence. If voter ID becomes a more widespread requirement, it could be a significant barrier to many wishing to exercise their democratic right. The Electoral Reform Society has gone further, suggesting that the ID trials appear to be a “calculated effort by the government to make voting harder for some citizens.”

Earlier this month, senior barristers at a leading law firm in London claimed that ministers had acted beyond the scope of the law in ordering the ID trials at the May elections. The barristers said that a section of the Representation of the People Act 2000 provides for changes to voting methods, but these should make voting easier. “Schemes that restrict or discourage voting, or that inhibit voters, are not within the meaning of the section”

The Cabinet Office disagrees with this view, and further trials will take place next year. It looks like ID voting is here to stay.


The Idox blog has been keeping a close eye on the UK’s electoral system. Here are some of our posts covering electoral issues:

Scotland eyes a youthquake with online voting: here are some tips from past pilots

Image: PA Images via the Conversation UK

This guest blog was written by Toby S James, Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

One achievement for 2017, as the year came to an end, is that it has added a new word to the English language: youthquake. The idea is that previously silent and apathetic young people have awoken to exert their democratic influence on the electoral process.

Despite a 401% increase in usage of the word, a real youthquake is yet to happen. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election saw an upswing from 2015, but still only half (54%) voted. Participation in other types of elections remains much lower. Huge proportions of young people are also missing from the electoral register. There is therefore still a major gap in levels of electoral participation in Britain.

Now the Scottish government has published plans to reform how Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local elections are run, including an idea that many think will bring in younger people – internet voting.

The Scottish parliament recently gained new powers over how Scottish parliamentary elections and electoral registration are run. In its consultation document it wants to “explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions to” increase voter participation. The proposals for changes are impressively ambitious and more wide-ranging than those currently being considered by the UK government.

Internet voting has many supporters, who see enormous potential for improving voter participation among young people. It’s a sensible line of thought. There are many reasons why people don’t vote or engage with the electoral process, but a considerable amount comes down to basic convenience. We are busy. Registration and voting procedures that fit snugly with our everyday lifestyle will enable us to take part. Processes that are long-winded, archaic and bureaucratic will clink with routines, giving us just an extra reason not to vote. Young people are tech-savy and mobile phone ready. So why send them to the village hall to vote?

What we already know

The reality so far, however, is that internet voting hasn’t yet proved capable of bringing about a major awakening. Those with a long memory may remember that the UK actually piloted remote internet voting in 2002, 2003 and 2007 at a local level. In some areas, citizens could cast their vote from any personal computer with an internet connection using personalised information provided on their polling card.

This was part of a broader set of pilots introduced by New Labour which also included postal voting, telephone voting, SMS voting, digital TV voting and even supermarket voting alongside good old fashioned polling stations which began in 2000.

One lesson from these pilots, drawn from my my evaluation, was that it was actually all-postal elections that could have the biggest effect on turnout. This involved sending a postal vote to citizens automatically instead of asking them to go to the polling station. In the first year of pilots (2000), all-postal voting took place in wards in seven local authorities, and turnout rose in every instance on the previous year. In Gateshead, turnout jumped up from 26.4% in 1999 to 57.3% with all postal elections.

Drawing lessons about the the effects of internet voting were difficult because it was offered to citizens in pilots alongside many other ways of voting. This was a major design flaw with the pilots that shouldn’t be repeated in Scotland, if it goes ahead. Only one new voting method should be trialled in each pilot area so that we can see what effect it has.

A clear message, however, was that internet voting was much more frequently used when it was available up until the close of the poll – in many pilots it was unavailable on election day itself. This should therefore be made possible as part of any future pilot.

Subsequent international work doesn’t provide much evidence that internet voting considerably boosts voter turnout either. Estonia became the first country ever to use internet voting in binding national parliamentary elections in 2007. But again, there is no evidence of a major surge in youth turnout.

Concerns about cyber-security would probably make use at a UK-wide election a non-starter. But over ten years since the first UK pilots, there is a strong case for experimenting with new pilots of internet voting at the local level, where the motivations to hack an election are much lower, and the number of non-voters is much greater. Central and local governments have a responsibility to make voting as convenient as possible – and smart phones are much more widely available today than they were in 2003.

The lessons from internet voting experiments so far suggest that there are many other reasons why people don’t vote, however. These could be easily addressed with other measures, such as voter registration reform and civic education. Last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation proposed 25 measures to improve voter registration across the UK, such as the use of automatic voter registration. 2017 was also the year in which we discovered that electoral administrators had been cutting voter outreach work to engage young people due to financial austerity. There are therefore many other less headline grabbing reforms which could help to generate a youthquake.


Toby S James is Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Toby’s research has been externally funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, AHRC, ESRC, Nuffield Foundation and the McDougall Trust. He has written commissioned policy reports for national and international organisations and given invited evidence to Parliamentary committees. He is currently a Fellow to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation and Advisor to the Law Commission’s Review of Electoral Law. He is also on the Scientific Board for Electoral Expert Review.

If you enjoyed this blog, read our other articles relating to voting and elections:

Women in politics: the long and winding road to equality

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On 9 November, the world woke up to learn the name of the next US president – and it wasn’t the name most people had been expecting. Although the election didn’t turn out to be as historic as it might have been, having a female nominee for president of the United States still marked a milestone on the road to equality for women in political life. But, while the profile of women in politics has never been higher, the wider story of female political participation and representation has been one of slow, intermittent and hard-won advancement.

The path to power

In 1893, New Zealand was the first modern democracy to acknowledge women’s right to vote, while the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was Finland in 1906. In the UK, women were first entitled to vote in 1918 – but only for property owners over the age of 30. It took another ten years before the vote was given to women on same terms as men. Women in Switzerland had to wait even longer, first receiving the right to vote in national elections in 1971.

Progress towards greater representation of women in politics has also been protracted. Again, Finland led the way, electing 19 female members of parliament in 1907. But it wasn’t until 1960 that the world’s first woman prime minister was elected (Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike). Twenty years later, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland became the first woman to be elected as a head of state (she was subsequently re-elected three more times). In 2015, for the first time, Saudi Arabia allowed women the right to vote and stand in municipal elections (21 female candidates were elected out of 2106 seats).

Women in politics today

In 2016, Theresa May followed in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, to become the UK’s second woman prime minister. Meanwhile, after a decade in power, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential politicians, and she recently announced she’ll be seeking re-election for a fourth term in 2017.  In addition, there are now female heads of government in a variety of countries, from Chile to Bangladesh, Liberia to Norway. There are also women first ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and a growing number of female mayors in cities such as Paris, Rome, Montevideo and Baghdad. In October’s Icelandic election, 48% of those elected were women – enabling it to claim the title of the most equal parliament in the world.

It may seem that the tide has turned for female representation in politics. But a closer look uncovers a less rosy picture:

  • Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, only sixteen (8%) have a woman president or prime minister.
  • Seven countries have no women in their national parliament, while 35 have fewer than 10%.
  • Out of 650 contested seats, 191 women were elected to the House of Commons at the 2015 UK general election (29% of MPs).

Breaking down the barriers

Earlier, this year, we reported from the Women in Public Life conference held in Edinburgh. The discussions highlighted the low proportion of women elected to the UK’s local councils and devolved assemblies with a particular focus on Scotland.  The May 2016 elections did little to improve on this situation.

  • 45 women (34.9%) were elected to the Scottish Parliament, the same proportion as in 2011, and down on the high point of 39.5% in 2003.
  • 2016 saw 25 women (41.7%) elected to the National Assembly for Wales, a higher proportion than the other devolved assemblies, but down on the 2003 Welsh Assembly, which had an equal number of women and men.
  • In the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, of the 108 seats contested 30 were won by women – up on the 20 elected in 2011, but still only 27.8% of the total.

The conference also debated some of the ways in which the barriers to female participation and representation in politics might be overcome. These included:

  • creating a forum for women councillors in local government;
  • promoting a cross party consensus on encouraging women candidates to stand in local and parliamentary elections;
  • creating a mentoring scheme to encourage more young women to participate;
  • promoting flexible working patterns, including reducing the number of late night debates
  • statutory measures, such as quotas, to advance the role of women in elections.

Supporters of gender quotas point to their effective deployment in countries such as Bolivia, South Africa and Sweden as ways of redressing women’s exclusion from public life. Following the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016, a team of University of Edinburgh researchers argued that without quotas women’s representation would remain slow and incremental at best:

“For real and lasting progress, warm words must be backed up with statutory measures to embed quality in our political institutions.”

In the Republic of Ireland, legislation was introduced in 2012 with provisions that the major political parties would lose half of their state funding unless at least 30% of their election candidates were female. The first national test of the new quotas came in the general election of 2016, which saw 35 women (22.3%) elected to the lower house of the Irish parliament. This amounted to a 40% increase from the election of 2011, where 15% of the successful candidates were women. While some attributed this to gender quotas, an early analysis of the results suggested that it may take one or two more election cycles to determine the full impact of quotas on Irish elections.

Role models for the future?

Increased representation for women in politics is important for the positive impact it can have on both gender equality issues and social policy more broadly. But might the presence of female politicians also inspire interest in political participation among young women?

Studies into the effectiveness of women politicians as role models have produced a mixture of conclusions:

  • A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, found that increased visibility of women politicians increased the likelihood of adolescent girls’ intention to be politically active.
  • In 2012, research from the University of California, Berkeley, reported that the election of additional women in US state legislative elections had “no discernible causal effects on other women’s political participation at the mass or elite levels.”
  • Research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015 suggested that role models are important for improving women’s representation, but only in its early stages.

Final thoughts

Time will tell whether we ever see a woman elected to the role of American President. But while it’s important and exciting to see more women winning political office at the highest level, equal representation for women across the board, from grassroots and local council level upwards is as vital. And, as a recent Holyrood magazine article underlined, the presence of women in political life is not only important for women:

“…if we cannot yet manage equal representation for half the population, how are we to achieve real representation for other parts of society such as BME people and those with disabilities who are actually in a minority?”


Further reading

Women in public life: breaking the barriers – conference highlights

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Could electoral reform revitalise democracy? The role of choice and personalisation in voting systems

The EU referendum … the Conservative and Labour Party leadership contests …. ‘voter fatigue’ …. over the last couple of months, politics has been dominating the news.

We’ve written before on this blog about low turnout for elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners, and whether the Swiss style of direct democracy could ever catch on here. What’s clear is that political engagement is lower in the UK than in some other countries. There’s also a breakdown in trust in politicians, often linked back to the reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. And there’s been a dramatic shift in the landscape of party politics and allegiances, as seen in the collapse of Scottish Labour support and the rise of UKIP.

To what extent, though, is the electoral system itself a contributing factor to disengagement? And can electoral reform help reinvigorate democracy?

Multiple voting systems in the UK

Public interest in, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with, voting systems is hard to gauge. In the 2011 UK referendum on changing the voting system for general elections to Alternative Vote, the result was 67.9% against and only 32.1% in favour, on just a 42% turnout. Many people also assume that ‘first past the post’ is still the only electoral system in the UK.

In fact, there are multiple different voting systems within the UK, and people have regularly voted on the same day for elections operating under different systems.

Electoral reform and its impact

A recent event held by the Constitution Unit at UCL explored the character of electoral reforms across Europe and considered the implications within the UK. Reporting back on recently published research focusing on national/state-level electoral systems, Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit, highlighted a number of key findings. Most surprising was that there’s little evidence that electoral reform leads to improved turnout or satisfaction with democracy.

The panel of speakers recognised that discussion of electoral reform can be ‘nerdy’ but it was clear that there are some key questions that tie in to wider debates on citizenship and public engagement:

  • Is voting in elections actually a poor way for the public to express policy preferences?
  • Does highly individualised political consciousness lead to a concern for what candidates can deliver for you personally (or at a local level) rather than big policy issues?
  • Has the collapse of class politics and discrediting of the traditional left resulted in the concept of political identity itself becoming obsolete?
  • And are wider societal shifts — the individual as consumer — responsible for dissatisfaction with processes for political representation?

The importance of choice in democracy

Traditionally, discussion of electoral reform has focused on the distribution of power — the debate between proportional/majoritarian electoral systems. There’s been a shift recently, however, to focusing on the question of the degree to which voters are able to choose among candidates rather than parties.

It seems that as voters disengage with political parties they become more interested in intra-party dimensions. Personalities can become more important than policies.

The shift within wider society to consumerisation is also leading to an inevitable change in people’s views of politics (and politicians). Having a choice between two or three ‘political brands’ (the main parties) doesn’t fit well with the ethos of competition and markets which are now present in other areas of our lives. Voters increasingly expect to be able to influence not just how many seats each party wins, but also who fills those seats. However, the ‘first past the post’ system means that if you support a party, but not your local candidate, you don’t have a means of saying so at the ballot box.

Processes for candidate selection have also been criticised for not doing enough to address the under-representation of certain groups within politics. Last month’s independent Good Parliament report made recommendations for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It’s argued that the public perception of parliament as an elite will never change unless candidates reflect the communities they represent.

The Institute for Government also recommended in 2011 that there should be more ‘primary elections’, where candidate selection processes are opened out beyond party members to the wider public. The question of candidate selection (and deselection) is likely to come to the fore again as a result of the current issues within the Labour party, and prominent mayoral elections.

Electoral reform and personalisation is no panacea

Any response to the current disaffection with the political system requires more fundamental reforms to allow the public to engage more fully and thoughtfully in policy debates. We’ve written on this blog about some initiatives which are attempting to do this, such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding regeneration within London and an innovative theatre project which introduces strategic planning to local communities. There’s also great work being done in some areas on participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies.

Small electoral reforms, or changes to institutional arrangements, such as those that followed the MPs’ expenses scandal, can create a ‘good story’ for government in terms of appearing to be modernising, but they rarely stem from strong public demand. It could be time to debunk the “great electoral reform myth” and consider deeper changes to how our public institutions engage with the public.


Panel speakers at the event on 26 July were Dr Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit; Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University; Darren Hughes, Electoral Reform Society; and Professor Roger Scully, Cardiff University. It was organised by the Constitution Unit at UCL.

The research cited is from the book Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe, by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet.

EU referendum – what the think tanks are saying

Euro Flag iStock_000003625536MediumBy Heather Cameron

With just under a month to go until the UK goes to the polls for the EU referendum, we take a look at what some of the major think tanks have been publishing on the debate.

Immigration and the economy have featured heavily in the referendum campaign. Negative attitudes to immigration, and in particular free movement within the EU has been highlighted as the strongest predictor of opposition to UK membership of the EU. And the possibility of a negative impact on the economy in the event of a ‘leave’ vote has been widely highlighted by the ‘remain’ campaign. Obviously, many of the think tanks have a specific agenda or political leaning, and this is reflected in how they are responding to the Brexit question.

What the think tanks are saying

Civitas has published a number of reports on Britain’s EU membership and how an exit from it would not damage the economy the way some would have us believe. Its most recent report on the trade benefits of EU membership has branded the argument that the European Single Market provides huge trade benefits to the UK as a ‘myth’.

Highlighting the example of Switzerland, Civitas has also argued that Britain could have much to gain from leaving the EU in terms of trade as it would be free to organise its own deals without EU restrictions.

Nevertheless, it also implies that retaining free trade with the EU Single Market, similar to the circumstances of Switzerland and Norway, would be important.

Others that appear to back ‘Brexit’ (Britain’s exit from the EU) have also alluded to the potential importance of the Single Market for trade. According to the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), the only viable option for the UK following a vote to leave the EU is joining the European Economic Area (EEA). This involves participation in the Single Market but from a position outside the EU. It allows for the free movement of goods, capital, services and people with the rest of EU.

Research on the referendum by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has also covered the economic impacts of a decision to leave, in addition to immigration and the financial sector.

Unlike Civitas, NIESR has warned of ‘a significant shock to the UK economy’ if there is a vote to leave the EU, assuming the UK will no longer have a free trade agreement. NIESR analysis suggests that the impact would include lower Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a depreciation of Sterling, reductions in trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), and a potential fall in consumption and real wages.

Similarly, the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) has argued that Brexit would have a negative effect on FDI. It estimates that Brexit would lead to a 22% fall in FDI over the next decade, which could cause a 3.4% decline in real income – about £2,200 of GDP per household.

Also in its analysis, CEP argues that leaving the EU would lower trade between the UK and the EU because of higher tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. It suggests that the UK would also benefit less from future market integration within the EU. And while it acknowledges the economic benefit of a lower net contribution to the EU budget in the event of a vote to leave, it also suggests that incomes would inevitably fall, offsetting any savings from reduced fiscal contributions to the EU budget: “we consistently find that by reducing trade, Brexit would lower UK living standards.”

In terms of immigration, recent NIESR research suggests that there has been relatively little impact on the UK so far but that a vote to leave the EU could dramatically change immigration and its impact. One article looking at the long term economic impact of a reduction in migration found that a significant reduction in net migration would have strong negative effects on the economy by reducing GDP and thereby impacting on public finances.

The Institute for Public Policy Studies (IPPR) has published a range of material on the immigration and free movement issue. Its most recent report highlights the importance of the issue of EU migration in relation to the upcoming vote. The study found that there are concerns around migrants’ access to welfare, pressure on public services, crime and personal security, and wage undercutting. But at the same time, the advantages of free movement were also noted, in particular opportunities for UK citizens to live and work easily in other EU countries and the benefits of EU migrants filling skills gaps.

Similarly, the Fabian Society has also highlighted the importance of the immigration issue, noting that more than half of voters select it as one of their top three concerns when thinking about the referendum. In testing the effectiveness of both arguments, it was found that while the ‘remain’ campaign is slightly ahead and does well on first impressions, the ‘leave’ arguments seem to have more power to persuade.

Final thoughts

Full Fact is attempting to independently check statements made by both sides of the campaign. But whatever the outcome, we are guaranteed that Europe will continue to be a talking point after 23 June.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous posts on political participation and the role of social media and voter turnout.

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Police and Crime Commissioner elections: increasing engagement in low turnout elections

police, policeman back

On 5 May 2016, voters in 41 police force areas (excluding London) will go to the polls to elect Police and Crime Commissioner (PCCs). During the last PCC election, in November 2012, just over 36 million people were registered to vote in the elections, but only 5.49 million votes were cast (a turnout of around 15%). This is the lowest recorded level of participation in a peacetime non-local government election in the UK.

What are PCC’s?

The Conservative party, who formed one part of the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, made the introduction of PCCs an election pledge in 2010. Elected PCCs are intended to be the democratic link between the public and the police. The government’s aims in setting up the PCCs were:

  • to form a key part of the localism agenda – giving power over local issues back to local people
  • to replace  the system of police authorities which had existed since 1964
  • to raise accountability, increase transparency and create legitimacy within local level policing

PCCs hire and fire chief constables, control budgets running into hundreds of millions of pounds and set local priorities for policing in their area. But when the role was introduced and the first elections for the posts held in 2012, turnout was disappointingly low . Public knowledge of the existence of the role was limited, as was understanding of the PCCs’ powers and responsibilities.

Supporters of the scheme heralded it as a new age of local policing that was more responsive to local needs. But some critics have questioned the paradox of “independent” commissioners who campaign on a party platform and point to some of the potential challenges of what they call “politicising policing”. Others have questioned the notion of legitimacy when the turnout for the first election was so low and the understanding of the role of commissioners was so limited.

Further to this, as many as 44% of current PCCs are not standing for re-election this time round. As a result, there is some frustration that people will not have the opportunity to judge PCCs on their record. As the elections approach, PCCs have been engaging with local people to try and raise awareness of their roles and of the upcoming election to ensure a better turnout than the first time around.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, at 'The Pioneers: Police and Crime Commissioners, one year on'

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, at ‘The Pioneers: Police and Crime Commissioners, one year on’ Image by Policy Exchange via Creative Commons

The next stage of reform: new powers for PCCs?

In February 2016, the Home Secretary, Theresa May delivered a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank outlining the challenges which have faced PCCs since the elections of 2012 and setting out her vision for their future.

In addition to promoting increased transparency, accountability and cooperative joint working between forces in order to raise standards and cut costs, the government is also seeking to widen the role of PCCs within the criminal justice system. The proposals have still to be outlined in full, but they include collaborative working and strategy creation between Police, schools and the wider criminal justice system. In addition, under the Policing and Crime Bill currently going through Parliament, PCCs will be able to take responsibility for fire and rescue services (where a local case can be made), and to create a single employer for the two services.

It is clear that there also needs to be a discussion about how PCCs could fit within the emerging context of locally elected mayors and the wider devolution agenda. The proposals for devolution for Greater Manchester mean that the role of PCC will be abolished in 2017, and transferred to the mayor once elections have taken place.

Why don’t people vote?

Analysts have suggested that a lack of voter awareness and the November timing of the election both contributed to the lack of interest and low levels of voter participation in the 2012 PCC elections.

Recent changes to voting registration in the UK have resulted in a drop in the number of registered voters, leading some to predict that turnout in this year’s PCC elections will not be much higher than in 2012. However, a surge in people registering for the upcoming EU referendum, may counteract this trend. The fact that PCC elections are also being held on the same day as more high profile local government elections may also encourage more people to vote, although the questions of voter awareness of PCCs’ roles remain.

Other suggested reasons for low turnout  have been the use of the supplementary vote system, and poor candidate engagement during the election campaign. Even after the elections, 1 in 3 people in England were unable to name or recognise their local PCC.

Time will tell whether this situation improves after the 2016 vote.

VOTE

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Eligible voters have until 18 April 2016 to register to vote in the local council and Police & Crime Commissioner elections in England and the Holyrood election in Scotland.The deadline for voter registration for the European Union referendum is 7 June. Further information is available here.

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Also on our blog: Pushing the vote out: how can more people be persuaded to exercise their most basic civic right?

Irish eyes aren’t smiling: how a change in policy on charges for water brought thousands onto the streets

Domestic water charges might seem an unlikely issue to mobilise a nation.  But in the Republic of Ireland, water charging has provoked mass protests not seen in the country for decades. The policy was instrumental in bringing down the last Irish government and may well be a deciding factor in the formation of the next. And although some elements in the story are unique to Ireland, the introduction of water charges has lessons for central and local government elsewhere.

A controversial policy

The roots of the problem lie in 2010, when Ireland had to accept an €85 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund after the collapse of almost all of the country’s big private financial institutions. One of the bailout conditions was a restructuring of the water sector and the introduction of domestic water charges before the end of 2013.

Since the formation of the Irish state, costs for water supply and treatment have been covered through the central taxation system and water charges on businesses. But in 2013, the government established a new water utility company – Irish Water – to take over the control of infrastructure and distribution from local authorities, and to collect water charges. The pricing model adopted by Irish Water was confusing, but indications were that the average annual cost per household would be between €278 and €584.

Irish Water’s first few months of operations were dogged by  a series of controversies concerning data protection, bonus payments to staff and wasteful expenditure that undermined the new body’s credibility. At the same time, although the government said there were no plans to privatise Irish Water, opponents of the scheme expressed concern that the utility company could prove attractive to commercial buyers.

The public response

Coming on the back of four years of public sector cuts and additional taxes, the water charges were deeply unpopular. While some objected to the principle of paying for water, others felt they were being made to pay twice, both through taxation and the new charges.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, thousands of people took part in mass demonstrations in the biggest public backlash against government policy for many years. At one demonstration, the deputy prime minister’s car was surrounded by protesters for almost three hours. Smaller-scale, but no less heated protests prevented Irish Water workers from installing water meters. The rebellious mood was not confined to the streets. The first bills were sent out at the start of 2015, but by the summer it was clear that less than half of Irish Water customers had paid up.

A vote-losing policy

Water charging was a significant issue during last month’s Irish general election campaign. The coalition government defended the policy, while the main opposition parties called for water charges to be scrapped.

After an inconclusive election result, the future of water charging now hangs in the balance.  The horse-trading between Ireland’s political parties means water charges will be up for discussion among politicians hoping to form a government.

But even if agreement on scrapping the charges is reached, proceeding from there may not be straightforward.  Abolition could be in breach of the IMF loan conditions and could also lead to fines from the European Commission. At the same time, money still has to be found to maintain the country’s water supply, to repair Ireland’s decaying water infrastructure and to promote water conservation.

Lessons from across the Irish Sea

For some, the domestic water charges may appear to be an Irish stew of maladministration, miscommunication and recrimination. But the policy reform contains lessons that could reverberate beyond Ireland.

Concerns about who supplies water in the Republic of Ireland are echoed in the UK, where different models of water provision exist in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The debate over whether public or private ownership provides the better service shows no sign of abating, and the uproar in Ireland demonstrates that water can be an emotive and explosive issue.

The shambolic reform of Ireland’s water sector has provoked such enormous resentment that the new system may ultimately cost more than it raises. Earlier this month, an opinion poll found that only 22% of respondents intend to pay their next water bill.

The Irish water charges controversy is a reminder to policymakers everywhere that public confidence in a policy can make it or break it.


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