Writing this blog over the years has put us in the very lucky position of occasionally receiving advance sight of different reports and papers, which often spark a chain reaction of ideas often ending up with our thoughts being recorded for posterity. Today is one of those days, as we have the chance to discuss a subject very dear to our hearts; local elections.
A paper released today (Friday 7 March 2014) by Democratic Audit makes for very interesting reading, highlighting a number of key points which affect voter turnout and attitudes at elections in the UK. It's not massively long nor overly complex, and is well worth a read if you have even a passing interest in the democratic process, and has indeed sparked a chain of thoughts which I'll share in no particular order.
Overall, the report addresses three key areas which it sees as fundamental to the take-up of the right to vote each and every one of us has:
- Minimum voting age
- How we vote
- How we publicise election information
I'll avoid going into too much detail as the report does this better than I could (seriously, go have a look!), but I will share my thoughts on each of these in turn.
Lowering the voting age to 16
I started my career as a youth worker, so spent many years surrounded by children and young people. Some were mature and able to make informed decisions based on facts and evidence, while others were either immature, uninterested or unable to grasp the complexities of the voting system or the policies laid out before them.
Since then I've gone on to work with all ages within the community, from those same children and young people to those who were halfway through their careers before my grandparents were born. And guess what? Some of them were mature and able to make informed decisions based on facts and evidence, while others were either immature, uninterested or unable to grasp the complexities of the voting system or the policies laid out before them.
There are arguments why the voting age should not be lowered to 16, but I am yet to find one which holds very much water at all. Lowering the voting age allows discourse and interest to begin much earlier, and creates an expectation that voting is part of growing up rather than something you do only if you have to.
Local government elections could very easily become the way of proving this on a much wider level. It might be hard to start getting young people understanding the impact of national policies on a country which is part of a global economy, but getting them to understand how their votes will influence real changes in the places where they live and on the services they and their families use is much more likely. The difference between voting for an MP who then goes off to Westminster (other parliaments are also available) and voting for a local councillor who spends their time solely in their local area is huge, and would go a long way towards helping them understand local democracy that national politics will never allow.
A move like this would have few real problems in terms of administering, with the only opponents being those who have a vested interest in the status quo or those who spend little time with young people directly so don't see how sharp they can be.
How we vote
The way we have actually cast our votes has changed very little over the years. We get told to turn up at a polling booth which is in a local building (church, school, etc...) and told to bring a slip of paper which has our details on it. We then hand this over and get our name ticked off, before receiving and using a slip of paper with a lot of names on it. None of these are the names of Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, so many then get confused and look for the logo of the national party they want to vote for and tick there. This then gets put into a box, which is later counted by hand and added up manually.
I used to queue for 45 minutes at the bank and see the bank clerk to pay bills and manage my money, tracking it by writing in a cheque book (younger readers might need to google that) and receiving updates in the post which I had to file away for years. These days I do everything online and instantly, from wherever I am. And do you know what? It works. I trust the system and use it constantly. Some don't, and these people are still able to go into the bank if they need to, but more and more people are using the more modern tools for the job.
In this day and age there are surely solutions to online voting fears which can be used by those who wish to use them? Postal voting has proven that remote voting can work, and according to the Democratic Audit report "82% of 18-35 year olds said they would be more likely to vote if they could do it online". I know I quite like the ritual of going along to the polling station, but on occasion it's been difficult to make it on time and it's caused me a lot of worry for fear that I would miss my opportunity to vote. Having the option of online voting would take that pressure off, and allow me to use the best option for my circumstances.
On a separate note, the report mentions that we might want to consider allowing people to set up events and stalls at polling stations, I'm not sure I can support that as fully. While in many places this might indeed be as lovely as they say, I've seen far too many examples of voter intimidation and accusations of severe bullying to be happy that this wouldn't be abused. I've no problem with parties and candidates campaigning, but not when it's likely to put people off even trying to vote.
How we publicise election information
Finally, this is something which sings out to me; in fact, I think the report could go even further. It highlights the fact that information pre and post elections is sporadic at best, non-existent at worst, and that there is no standard or standards involved anywhere.
Open data is something which local government is getting better at all the time, with not only more datasets than ever before being made available but also the tools to start making use of this data and turning it into usable, useful, used information. We've got a long way to go of course, and perhaps the army of armchair auditors hasn't quite sprung up as quickly as we might have hoped, but nevertheless the data is increasingly getting published.
The report proposes that we learn from other countries in this regard, such as Ireland who publish results for all local elections in pdf formats. Famously, pdf is where data goes to die; there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that this data isn't released in machine readable formats. Developers such as Adrian Short can then use this data in clever ways which are often better than more official feeds, though of course were open source systems collaboratively developed there would be nothing from stopping all councils having access to these systems.
Better publication of the fact that elections are even happening is also a big issue; we in local government take it for granted that everyone knows elections are coming up, when for the majority of people nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, perhaps the mainstream media need to be better at advertising local (and other) elections, but local authorities can also (carefully) advertise it far earlier and more publicly than we currently do.
So, what next?
This report makes some very interesting points for us all to consider, and has certainly made me think myself about some things. Some of the issues are firmly within our control, such as our use of information and data, while other things are a little less immediately likely or within our control. However, local government is the perfect place for us to be more exciting and innovative; using some of the ideas and concepts suggest by Democratic Audit might be the perfect way of sparking interest in local democracy and increasing a sense of ownership of the democratic process in the places where we live.
Time for us all to get campaigning for some of this change to happen before the next elections roll around!
Information on the report
Democratic Audit is an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the LSE Public Policy Group. Their core objectives are to advance education, enhance democratic engagement and to undertake and promote research into the quality and effectiveness of UK democracy.