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