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:

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

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‘Workshop of the world’ … Is British manufacturing a thing of the past?

Image of old industrial plant.

Image: Till Krech via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

By Steven McGinty

In the 19th century, Britain was heralded as the ‘workshop of the world’, producing everything from locomotives to extraordinary handicrafts. By the 20th century, the United States was the predominant manufacturing power, but Britain had become a specialist in manufacturing.  In recent history, economic growth has been led by the service sector, particularly from financial services in the City of London.

This change in the economy has led to a lot of debate. In fact, this was cited as one of the main drivers of inequality by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) at a recent seminar I attended. However, does this mean Britain should return to its industrial roots, or should it focus on the provision of services, which has been seen as key to recent economic successes?

The Chancellor, George Osborne, certainly thinks there’s a place for manufacturing. In March 2014, he emphasised that his Budget was focused on boosting UK manufacturing and rebalancing the economy across the regions. The Budget included some high profiles measures, including the introduction of £7 billion of funding to cut energy bills for manufacturers, as well as compensation of £1 billion for energy intensive manufacturers.

A recent House of Commons Library statistical release provides some interesting insights into the UK manufacturing sector. It reports that economic output has decreased from 30% in the 1970s to 10% in 2012 and that manufacturing was badly affected during the recession, falling 14.5% between the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009. The manufacturing workforce has also reduced from 5.6 million in 1982 to 2.6 million in 2014.

However, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report provides some signs of optimism. It found that, since 1948, productivity in the manufacturing sector has increased gradually by 2.8% each year, compared to 1.4% in the service sector. The report suggests that the UK manufacturing sector has benefited more from information and communications technology (ICT) than the services sector and the more integrated global economy.

These factors have contributed to a shift from low-value manufacturing, where the focus was on low costs and low skilled workers, to high-value manufacturing, where workers provide value to the production process with their knowledge and expertise.

Interesting trends have also started to develop. For instance, Civitas has produced a report into ‘onshoring’ or ‘reshoring’, a practice that involves firms bringing back production that they had previously sent overseas. Firms are taking this approach for a number of reasons, some of which are related to the difficulties of offshoring such as language barriers, whereas others are looking more at the positives of domestic production, such as improved quality control, as well as an increase in a brand’s appeal by its connection to having products manufactured in countries such as the UK. Examples of onshoring including General Motors, who are currently investing £125 million in a domestic supply chain in the UK.

The report also highlighted that there are still barriers to onshoring. For example, less flexible workforces, although this is deemed to be changing in the United States as trade unions are becoming more flexible.

We have also seen the rise of ‘phoenix industries’. These are groups of firms that use similar technologies and have emerged in traditional industrial areas, typically developing sophisticated components for use in a range of industries. This idea was discussed in a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. It focused on a case study of the West Midlands, an area which has been seen as the ‘heartland’ of the automotive industry.  The article emphasised the importance of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the niche/luxury car manufacturer, for providing opportunities for smaller more innovative companies in their supply chain. Yet, the article also highlights that getting access to funding is key for these companies to develop their prototypes. This lack of funding for small firms was identified as a weakness of the UK sector.

So, is British manufacturing a thing of the past? The answer is most likely no. However, the shape of the manufacturing industry and the role it has to play as part of the overall economy has still to be determined. This will depend on a number of factors including future government policy, particularly addressing issues such as access to capital and shortages of skills, as well as the overall global economy, most notably the ability of the Eurozone to recover from its current economic downturn.


 

 Further reading:

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