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:

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.

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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?

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.”


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