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.

Dementia and the right to vote

On 3rd May 2018 voters in England will go to the polls in local elections. These elections will decide the make-up of local and borough councils across the UK, as well as some additional direct elections for the Mayoralties of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford.

As the population ages, questions arise over the ability and voting rights of those with age related degenerative mental conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Formal enquiries to council election teams, and general Google searches about the legal rights of someone with dementia to vote are increasing in number.

A dementia diagnosis does not alter a person’s right to vote. The Mental Capacity Act, which provides a framework for making decisions on behalf of people who lack capacity to make a decision, does not apply to voting. This means that a lack of mental capacity does not stop someone from being able to vote. It is up to the individual to decide if they want to vote. However, challenges can sometimes arise, if for example relatives vote for the individual, rather than on their behalf, voting for who they “think” the individual would have voted for, rather than who the individual themselves have expressed a wish to vote for.

This grey area can sometimes present challenges, especially as often this goes on in private. However, there are steps that can be taken to make voting as transparent as possible, and make the process of voting as accessible as possible for people with dementia (and other disabilities).

Image by secretlondon123, via Creative Commons

Physical adaptations

Physical adaptations can be made to the polling environment to make it more accessible for voters with dementia and Alzheimer’s. While there is a responsibility to make sure that polling stations are accessible to all, some adaptations can sometimes be overlooked, or are not made as obvious as they could be. Making polling stations “dementia friendly” can require just a few short adaptations, including perhaps a specific polling booth which uses labels like “in” and “out” and “pencil” in the booth itself.

Training for polling station staff on understanding how to react to and deal with voters who attend polling stations who have dementia is also seen as very important. In particular, there may be those who may need a carer to enter into the polling station with them. Poll station staff should be able to direct such voters in an appropriate way, regarding how to vote appropriately, especially if there are multiple elections happening on one day, with multiple ballot papers. Polling station staff should also be aware that they are able to help the voter to mark the paper (as the voter chooses) if for some reason they are unable to mark the page or hold the pencil themselves.

Removing additional barriers to voting such as reminding the individual to attend their polling station on the right day, or providing transport for those who are not mobile or do not know how to get to their polling station can also help make the process of voting in person, on the day a more pleasant experience for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Postal or proxy votes: voting remotely from home

Increasing awareness of postal and proxy voting is another way that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s could exercise their right to vote without causing distress or confusion (which can sometimes be instigated by physically attending a polling station).

Postal voting allows the individual to vote from home and submit their ballot (and accompanying postal vote statement) via post. Voting by post can help reduce the potential stresses of an unfamiliar environment like the polling station. A signature is usually required on a postal vote, for security reasons, but if a voter is unable to sign their name, or if their signature varies a lot, then they can ask for a waiver. (If you want to do this, contact your local registration officer and they will help you, usually by sending you a waiver request form.)

A proxy vote allows the voter to nominate another person to vote on their behalf. A proxy does not make the decision about who to vote for on behalf of the person, but rather votes for who they are instructed to vote for by the original voter.

Guidance from the electoral commission has also been issued for Electoral Registration Officers (EROs), with regard to assisted applications to vote, and what can and can’t be done on behalf of a voter. This includes the presumption that a person has capacity. In addition, residents of care homes can be registered to vote by care home managers, who can complete an application for all residents, but again, cannot vote on their behalf (unless they are a registered proxy for the voter).

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

Challenges and opportunities in the future

Additional challenges could be presented by the development of electronic voting. However, this could also be seen as an opportunity to create a voting system which is actually more straight forward and is easier to navigate for people with multiple disabilities, including dementia.

Estonia has one of the best developed e-voting systems in the world, with voting linked to a national digital ID card which contains photos and digital copies of fingerprints for additional security. The system can make the process of voting clearer, and also make it easier for people with a limited range of movement to vote themselves. However, there are a number of questions which have been raised as to whether this would be a feasible option in Britain.

Some have suggested it would not actually make voting any easier, that it would require a major overhaul of voting systems and the transfer of a lot of data and information, and that, given the recent uncertainty around cyber-attacks, there can be little certainty, with current software, that the process could be completely reliable and secure.

Final thoughts

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.

In 2017 the government launched a Call for Evidence asking for views on how people with disabilities experience registering to vote and voting itself. This included people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, although the results of this are as yet unpublished.

It is clear that, exercising your right to vote is something that should be protected for all citizens, but with the growing challenges raised by an ageing population, the time may be coming for the UK to have a major rethink about how it votes, and what changes could be made to make this easier for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.


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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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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.

The land of “neverendums”. For the Swiss, direct democracy is a way of life, but could it work in the UK?

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Image by Till Westermayer via Creative Commons

Next week, voters across the UK will finally make their decision on the country remaining in or leaving the European Union. This is only the third UK-wide referendum ever to be held. The first was in 1975, on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community. The second took place in 2011, on a new voting system to replace first-past-the-post.

Although referendums in different parts of the UK have become more commonplace – such as those on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and on Scottish independence in 2014 – they are much less frequent at UK level. This is because of the UK’s tradition of representative democracy, where sovereignty rests with parliament. In Switzerland, however, representative democracy runs parallel to a system of direct democracy, which gives voters the last word on legislation.

The Swiss system

Of all the national referendums held in Western democracies since World War II, more than two-thirds have been held in Switzerland. Swiss voters go to the polls three or four times a year, deciding on issues as varied as immigration, complementary medicine, and financing of local sports facilities. Swiss referendums may be triggered in several different ways:

  • Obligatory referendum (following a constitutional amendment or an application to join an international organisation, such as the United Nations or the European Union)
  • Optional referendum (puts parliamentary decisions to the popular vote, but only if 50,000 valid signatures are collected within three months)
  • Popular initiative (proposers have 18 months to collect 100,000 signatures to force a vote on a particular issue)
  • Counter proposal (if parliament disagrees with a popular initiative, it can put forward alternative. Both votes are held at the same time, and if both are approved, the one with the highest number of “yes” votes is the winner)

As one writer on Switzerland has observed,

“…the Swiss people are the final decision-makers on almost every single policy, whether it affects their own neighbourhood or the whole country. This democratic freedom and the right to be heard are inalienable rights for the Swiss, who proudly view them as the source of their stability and prosperity.”

More referendums in the UK? The arguments for and against

On the face of it, any political system which encourages greater citizen participation is to be applauded. Proponents of referendums argue that they are exercises in civic engagement, stimulating debate and increasing interest among people who would usually show no interest in politics.

A good example, in a UK context, is the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The campaign energised voters across the country and the poll itself saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. Despite being on the losing side, both the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party reported a surge in membership in the aftermath of the referendum result.

Supporters of the wider use of referendums also believe they can provide a mandate for specific policies, such as the Republic of Ireland’s vote supporting equal marriage in 2015, and can legitimise important constitutional issues, such as devolution.

However, opponents of the referendum as a democratic tool contend that the issues debated during referendum campaigns can’t be decided by a simple binary choice, or are too complex for the public to understand. Professor Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, has argued that the UK’s membership of the EU should be decided by elected officials with a sound understanding of the major economic issues:

“It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. This should be a matter for parliament.”

A recent leader article in The Economist noted that referendums may be used by fringe groups or populist parties to exercise outsize influence. In recent years, the nationalist-conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has gained enough signatures to force referendums on issues such as the construction of new minarets for Swiss mosques and the imposition of quotas on immigration. Some in Switzerland believe that these campaigns have damaged the country’s image and incited hostility towards ethnic minorities.

In addition, a narrow decision can raise questions about the legitimacy of the result. The slim margin (50.4%) of Swiss voters supporting immigration quotas in 2014 make it more likely that the country will be asked to vote on the issue again. This could be problematic, with voters potentially becoming fatigued or apathetic if they are asked to vote too often. In the Swiss case, the average voter turnout for all 10 of the elections and referendums held in 2014-2015 was 50.1%, although turnout fluctuated between a high of 63% and a low of 42%.

Final thoughts

For some, the EU referendum campaign has shown up the deficiencies in the use of referendums to make momentous decisions – conjecture, claims, counter-claims and inconclusive arguments. For others, it has been an important exercise in direct democracy, giving the people a chance to debate an issue of vital importance to the entire country.

Unlike Switzerland, the UK has an unwritten constitution, and there are no rules on what can trigger referendums. Only in rare cases have British governments put a single issue to the people, a feature of UK politics that is set to continue. Whatever the outcome of next week’s vote, it’s unlikely that the UK will move towards the Swiss system of direct democracy.


If you liked this post, you might also be interested in other blog posts about democracy and referendums:

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

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.