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

Image by Idox Information Service

 


Idox election services

The Idox elections team delivers innovative, cost effective solutions to meet the changing needs of the UK and international electoral services market. This year, we shall again provide election management services to support the local government and PCC elections in England and Wales and the Scottish Parliament elections.

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.

To sign up for our weekly bulletin update relating to the Scottish Parliament elections please email this address).

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

By James Carson

With elections for the devolved assemblies, Greater London Assembly, the Mayor of London, Police and Crime Commissioners, some local councils and the European Union referendum all taking place in 2016, voters across the UK will be going to the polls more often than usual this year.

Or will they?

Last year saw a 66.1% turnout for the UK General Election. At the time, this was headlined as a “bumper election turnout”. But the figure was considerably lower than the highest ever turnout at a general election – 83.9% in 1950. Turnout for local and European elections has been even lower than for general elections, and in 2012 the first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England saw just 15% of the population voting.

Voter registration: falling numbers, rising concerns

In 2014, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee expressed alarm at declining levels of voter engagement, and was particularly concerned about voter registration:

“Millions of people are missing from the UK’s electoral registers. Many of those who are registered—and in many cases the majority—choose not to participate at elections, be they for the UK Parliament, local government, or the European Parliament. In a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that millions of people who are eligible to vote are missing from electoral registers.”

For some years, concerns have been raised about electoral fraud, leading to calls for changes in voter registration to improve confidence in the electoral register. To address these concerns, in 2014 Individual Electoral Registration (IER) went live in England, Wales and Scotland.

Prior to IER, one person in every household took responsibility for registering everyone else living at that address. Under the new system, every individual applying to register needs to provide “identifying information”, such as a national insurance number, and this must be verified before the application is accepted.

The early impact of IER

Although IER has the potential to make electoral registration more accessible to more people, critics have voiced concerns, claiming that it is too complex and may disenfranchise thousands of voters.

In February 2016, UK government figures showed a 600,000 drop in the number of registered voters over the past year (a fall of 1.4 million names since 2014). Commenting on the figures, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

The fall in the number of registered voters over the past two years shows the danger of the government’s decision to push through the shift to individual electoral registration a year ahead of schedule, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. With elections all over the country in just three months, far too many people are now in danger of missing out on their most basic civic right.”

Meanwhile, the National Records of Scotland reported that the number of people registered to vote in elections in Scotland had fallen by around 100,000 (2.5%) compared to March 2, 2015. The reductions are the first for more than a decade and much bigger than previous movements in the figures, but they echo a similar decline in Northern Ireland when IER was introduced in 2002.

Inequalities in registration

Many of those contributing to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s investigation argued that the biggest issue for voter engagement was not low levels of voter registration in the general population, but specifically among certain demographic groups, notably:

  • students and younger people (under 35)
  • people living in the private rented sector
  • certain Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups
  • people with disabilities
  • British citizens living abroad
  • Commonwealth and EU citizens
  • those classified as social grade DE (working class / non-working)

The Committee published recommendations aimed at raising the levels of registration and reducing inequalities:

  • make registration automatic
  • prompt people to register to vote when they access other public services (such as registering to pay council tax, or applying for a passport)
  • allow students to register at schools and colleges.
  • let people register to vote closer to the date of an election (rather than the current limit of 11 days before polling day)

Automatic voter registration: an international perspective

In the United States, declining voter registration and turnout rates have been causing similar concerns to those raised in the UK, and some states have been looking at automatic registration of voters.

In 2015, Oregon and California became the first US states to automatically register any citizen with a driving licence. Not everyone agrees with the change, with some legislators claiming that it replaces “individual convenience with government coercion”.

There’s no suggestion that compulsory registration in US states will lead to mandatory voting. But in Australia it is compulsory for citizens both to enrol and to vote in national, state and local elections. Penalties for not complying can include fines and prison sentences.  As a result, turnout figures for federal elections since 1946 have averaged 94%. Australia is one of 23 countries with some form of compulsory registration and /or voting, including France and Sweden (both of which have relatively high election turnout figures).

A work in progress

A notable exception to the trend in declining voting figures in the UK was the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, which saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. However, a post-referendum survey found that, although 16- and 17- year olds were eligible to vote for the first time, turnout among younger people was markedly lower than for those aged 35 and over.

There appears to be no quick fix to address voter engagement in terms of registration rates, inequalities of registration and declining turnout figures. But, as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee noted, democracy is a work in progress:

“…substantial cultural and structural changes are necessary to convince the public that registering to vote and participating at other elections is worthwhile. This work must go hand in hand with renewing the public’s faith in the UK’s political institutions. This is a task that requires the support of political parties, individual politicians, electoral administrators and the Government.”


If you enjoyed this article, read our previous posts on democracy and voting:

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Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

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We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


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Idox: enabling transformation, collaboration and improvement

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If you follow this blog regularly then you’ll know that we write on all areas of public and social policy. What you might not realise though is that our Knowledge Exchange team is just one part of a much wider business – Idox – providing specialist information and data solutions and services.

I’ve been working with Idox for about four years, but I’m still topping-up my knowledge about the organisation. Last week, at the company’s end-of-year get-together, my brain was like an overworked sponge as it tried to absorb a multitude of facts, figures and achievements during two days of workshops and presentations (to say nothing of the informal chats in between the working sessions).

From this wealth of information, I’ve compiled a selection that I think conveys a flavour of the depth and diversity of Idox today.

Ten things you might not know about Idox…

  1. The Reading Room, which is the newest addition to the Idox family of companies, has developed digital solutions for a wide range of customers, including Porsche and Clarence House, and this year developed a virtual reality test drive app for Skoda.
  2. Idox’s recently-launched iApply service enables planning applications and building control consent to be applied for via a single source, streamlining the application process.
  3. The Idox GRANTFinder policy and grants database contains details of over 8000 funding opportunities.
  4. Real-time information delivered by Idox’s Cloud Amber keeps the travelling public up-to-date about transport services and helps manage traffic congestion.
  5. The Idox group currently employs almost 600 people in over 10 countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, India and Australia.
  6. The Idox Elections service not only ensured the smooth management of postal voting for the 2015 UK general election, but has also supported delivery of local authority and community council elections in the UK, as well as this year’s local elections in Norway.
  7. Idox has a strong presence in the compliance sector, raising awareness among managers and employees of the importance of complying with regulations, from corruption prevention and data privacy to occupational safety and cybersecurity.
  8. Idox Engineering Information Management, provides critical engineering document management and control applications to the oil and gas, mining, pharmaceutical and transport industries in 50 countries.
  9. CAFM Explorer, Idox’s computer aided facilities management software, supports building maintenance and property management for organisations in 45 countries, and recently partnered with the Hippodrome to help maintain one of London’s most popular attractions.
  10. From food safety monitoring to licensing taxis, Idox’s regulatory services help local authorities enforce the rules that keep us safe.

One more thing…

Finally, the meeting reminded me of one thing I already knew, and it’s to do with the part of Idox where I work – the Knowledge Exchange.

Over breakfast on the second morning, a colleague from McLaren talked about the difficulties in finding the right information on the web. Search engines only go so far, he said, providing too little or too much. This is where skilled intermediaries, such as Idox’s team of Research Officers, can make a difference, identifying, sorting and presenting information that people can use to make decisions, support arguments and advance their businesses.

The Idox event was an enjoyable, if exhausting, couple of days, and it demonstrated the many ways in which the company is supporting public, private and third sector work.

Clearly, there’s much more to learn about Idox.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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

Involving young people in local political systems and decision-making

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Image from Flickr user UK Parliament via Creative Commons

Our latest briefing focuses on the involvement of young people in political processes and decision-making. You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange publications page.

While the media was focused on young people’s participation in politics at the national level during the recent General Election campaign, in this briefing we take a step back and look at the involvement of young people in local political processes and decision-making.

Research by the IPPR in 2013 found that alongside those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, young people are the group least likely to vote at elections. At the local level, research by the National Centre for Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that young voters are even less likely to turn out for local (and European) elections.

Our briefing highlights a range of reasons suggested by existing evidence as to why young people have low levels of engagement with political systems and decision-making. These include:

  • A lack of trust in politicians and their parties.
  • A focus on policies that do not directly impact on their lives.
  • Today’s generation of young people do not see voting as a civic duty.

Also highlighted are the reasons why it is so important that more is done to encourage young people to engage with political and decision-making processes. These range from legal factors (children and young people have the legal right to have a say in all matters that affect them, according to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to examples of positive contributions that children and young people have made in the shaping of local services.

The briefing includes advice on how organisations including councils can help to encourage and facilitate young people to become more involved in formal decision-making processes. This includes tips on practical considerations (e.g. venues, timing of meetings), safeguarding issues and how best to communicate with young people.

A number of examples of good practice are identified, including Dorset County Council’s Youth Inspectors scheme. Established in 2009, the project aims to enable young people to learn about and influence local services in their area.


 

The Knowledge Exchange specialises in public and social policy. To gain an insight into the commentary it offers, please explore our publications page on the Knowledge Exchange website.

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Idox Elections: delivering modern democracy

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by Stacey Dingwall

It was impossible to avoid: the UK held a General Election on 7 May 2015. Voting aside, the election experience was somewhat different for myself and a team of colleagues from across the company. This time, we joined the Idox Elections team for the period leading up the election in order to help deliver the company’s Postal Vote Management System (PVMS) in local authorities across the country.

PVMS is one of the key products delivered by Idox Elections. It works by comparing voters’ original Postal Vote Application (PVA) with the Postal Vote Statement (PVS) they complete at the same time as their ballot paper. The software compares the two forms using two unique identifiers: signature and date of birth. This ensures that the postal votes that go forward to the count on polling day are authentic.

Postal voting: a brief history

Postal voting ‘on demand’ became possible for the first time at the 2000 General Election, following the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. The Working Group, chaired by then Minister of State at the Home Office George Howarth, recommended that:

  • Absent voting should be allowed on demand.
  • The application and voting procedures for absent voting should be simplified.

The first recommendation was implemented by the Representation of the People Act 2000, and the second by the Representation of the People (England & Wales) Regulations 2001. Prior to this, those wishing to vote by post were required to state a reason for applying for an absent vote, or to obtain proof of illness, for example, from a medical practitioner or employer.

The 2000 Act also made it possible for local authorities to apply for permission to trial new methods of voting for local elections, including all-postal voting. According to a review of these trials by the Local Government Association, all-postal voting was the “only new electoral arrangement to have significant potential for increasing local election turnout”.

Despite concerns over abuse of the system and fraud, the Electoral Commission maintains that there is no evidence of widespread and systematic abuse, and that it would not be ‘proportionate’ to scrap postal voting. There are many indications that postal voting has led to increased electoral turnouts, with the Post Office reporting that the number of postal votes issued increased by over 1.6 million between the General Elections in 2005 and 2010. Written evidence submitted to parliament by the Electoral Commission also highlighted that at the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, where turnout was notoriously bad, postal votes accounted for 48.9% of the vote. During the Scottish Independence Referendum, some local authorities reported postal vote return rates of almost 90%.

Countdown to the election

For those of us new to the Elections team, work started the week beginning 27 April, almost two weeks before polling day. From the Monday, we started to arrive on-site to set up the system and meet the temporary staff employed to open and scan the PVS and ballot papers. The scale of this operation varied from one local authority to another: some of the smaller ones had 8,000 voting packs to get through before election day whereas sites like Glasgow (with an anticipated 66,000 packs) would sometimes process more than that in one day.

Polling day

On the actual day of the election, work in Glasgow began at 6pm. This was due to the fact that postal votes can legally be handed into polling stations until 10pm – we had a long night of verifying votes ahead of us. In Glasgow, we had moved from the council building to the Emirates Arena for the count, where our work continued as media outlets from across the country prepared to report the events of the night ahead.

Of course, we didn’t let the pressure get to us and the last of the postal votes were safely delivered to the council to go forward to the overall count around midnight. While the days were sometimes long, I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘sabbatical’ from the Idox Information Service team and the chance to be involved in the delivery of something as important as democracy: roll on the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016!


 

Our recent white paper ‘Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals‘ is an overview of who is influencing thinking in elections research.

Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management.

Will voter advice technology affect turnout on 7 May?

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Image: Man_vyi via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence

By Alan Gillies

In the run up to the last General Election in 2010, there was talk of declining turnouts in elections, disillusionment with politicians and fears that the 2010 turnout could be the lowest ever. But in the end the 2010 turnout (65.1%) was up slightly on both 2005 and the all-time low of 2001 (59.4%).

It will be interesting this year to see whether turnout continues to recover, perhaps to over 70% as suggested by some, or resumes a downward trend since 1950.

Turnout

The Scottish Independence referendum, which had a turnout of 84.5%, perhaps gives hope that people can still be engaged in politics, when they feel that issues are important to them and affect their lives. The referendum also highlighted the role of social networks, social media and technology in political engagement, particularly for young people.

In November 2014, our blog by James Carson looked at the rise of voter advice applications (VAAs), which pose a series of questions about election issues and uses the results to advise the user on which party is most closely aligned to their views. Since then these applications have proliferated in the UK, as shown by a list on the mySociety blog, which initially (20 March) identified six such apps, and to-date added a further thirteen!

There are concerns about potential negative aspects of such sites, for example that the ‘advice’ generated is dependent on a series of methodological choices made by the creators. But they do seem to engage and encourage people to vote. A study in the Netherlands estimated that that VAA usage accounted for about four per cent of the reported turnout in the election, and that it particularly affected groups typically less likely to vote, such as young voters and those less knowledgeable about politics.

A study of the impact of VAAs on actual voting behaviour indicated that “the patterns of usage and impact appear to cancel each other out, in that those who most frequently use VAAs are least likely to be affected by their vote advice”. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing? Users become engaged in the issues involved, but still make up their own mind.

And engagement in the political process is not just a ‘good thing’ for democracy. For those more interested in the ‘bottom line’, and what politician isn’t in this time of austerity, recent research has suggested that, at the local level at least increased public participation in the process of public decision making increased tax revenues.

Of course many issues affect turnout levels and VAAs can only play a small role. ‘The weather!’ it is often said, is the deciding factor – if it rains turnout will be low, sunshine and it will be high. The current long range forecast for 7 May is fine and 17C in the south of England, heavy showers and 13C in Scotland. But be wary of reading too much into that – evidence suggests that in the UK at least the link between weather and electoral turnout is an urban myth!


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on democracy and voting, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our recent white paper ‘Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals‘ is an overview of who is influencing thinking in elections research.

Who’s influencing thinking on democracy and voting in the UK?

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Ahead of next week’s general election, the Knowledge Exchange has published its elections white paper, Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals.

The white paper provides an overview of the following key themes in elections research:

  • Accountability and transparency
  • Representative groups
  • Voter participation and engagement

It highlights areas of overlap across these themes, and the different organisations which are producing research in each area:

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The paper highlights different democracy campaign groups, and provides summaries and biographies of think tanks, research institutes, government departments and individuals involved in UK elections research.

The briefing also includes summaries of a selection of recent publications on democracy and voting from some of the organisations listed, which are available on our Idox Information Service database.

We’ve written blog posts on a range of issues in relation to democracy and voting, which you can view here. We’ll also be publishing more elections material in the coming week.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on democracy and voting, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.