Frances Cowell thinks this problem could be fixed with more user-friendly voting arrangements.
Archaic election infrastructure and practices can have worrying effects on democratic outcomes. To see how, we compare two voting systems in otherwise similar democracies.
Diana is a working mum living in Croydon, a suburb south of London. She commutes each day to her job in desk-top IT support at a publishing firm in central London. The hours are mostly regular, so usually she is home in time to spend time with her partner and their children. But occasionally a deadline keeps her co-workers, and her, at the office late. That, together with transport delays, means that she is late home more often than she would like.
An election is approaching and she is keen to vote. She hasn’t been organised enough to arrange a postal vote, which means she can vote only in person at a single, defined polling place, in Croydon. Elections in Britain always take place on Thursdays, which of course coincides with extended shopping. And so it happened that Diana was late home from work and needed some things from the supermarket, which left her little time or energy to go out and vote. Her vote was lost.
Brenda is also a working mum, in a similar job to Diana’s and a family. She lives in Dandenong, a suburb of Melbourne, which means that she too has a long-ish daily commute to work in Melbourne.
An election is called and voting is compulsory on pain of a $50 (€30) fine. Elections are held on Saturdays, so she’s normally able to get to the polling place at a local public school. On this election-day, however, her elderly mother, living in Mornington, a dormitory suburb 35 kilometres away, had taken a turn, so Brenda had to go to her. By mid-afternoon, she was able to pop out to a local public school and cast her vote. There was a queue, as there usually is, but she was in and out within 30 minutes and back to her mother in 40. No pre-arrangement was necessary, she needed only her driver’s licence as photo ID.
Margaret and Malcolm are visiting their daughter, Brenda, in Melbourne when a snap election is called in Britain, where they live. They are keen to vote, so they go online and lodge an application for a postal vote. Two weeks later, the confirmation arrives by email, but the electoral authorities advise them to apply for a proxy vote, as there may not be enough time to return ballot papers in time for them to be counted. This poses a problem for Margaret and Malcolm, as they have recently down-sized and moved to a new area, where they don’t yet know anyone with whom they could entrust such a sensitive task. Despite all their best efforts, their voting intentions come to nothing.
Trevor and Pam are visiting their daughter in Croydon when an election is called in Australia, where they are citizens, so obliged to vote. Unlike some other elections in Australia, online voting has not yet been set up for this one, so they must vote in person. All Australian diplomatic missions (and those of some cooperating countries) have polling places open for the two weeks prior to any Australian election, ensuring that any Australian, anywhere in the world, can vote. Trevor and Pam therefore had the option of voting at Australia House in London or at the Embassy in Paris during the four-day trip they had planned. As with Brenda, no prior arrangement is needed, it is enough simply to show up with some identification and vote.
As with other countries where voting is compulsory and elections are on weekends, voter turnout in Australia is typically 91% or 92%. In Britain it ranges between 59% and 80%, averaging about 72% for parliamentary elections. Are Australians more conscientious or civic-minded than Britons? Perhaps, but there is scant evidence to support that thesis.
Clearly the legal obligation to vote is important, but common sense tells you that people are more likely to vote if it is easy to do so.
Week-day elections made sense in the days when men worked close to home so were likely to be visiting the town centre on market days. But times have changed and weekday elections in a real sense bias against some citizens. That most electorates in Britain report higher turnout among older folk, who are more likely to be retired with free time during the week, supports the case for weekend elections.
Britain is not alone, but is one of only three European countries, along with Ireland and the Netherlands, to hold elections during the week.
Other things being equal, elections held on weekends see higher voter turnout than those held during the week. This is clear from turnout figures for European elections where the only difference between countries is their voting laws. Excluding ex-Soviet countries, where psephologists attribute chronically low turnout to historical factors, countries where voting is not mandatory and elections take place on week-days average voter turnout of 44%. In those that hold their elections on weekends it rises to 56%.
Low voter turnout is always disappointing. It becomes worrying when those who want to vote are impeded from doing so. Worse, those would-be voters can form distinct groups: in our examples, working families and people who find themselves outside the country on polling day. This includes holiday-makers, of course, but it also captures people who are absent for professional reasons – an identifiable electoral group.
This compounds the distorting effects of another feature of British elections, the first-pass-the-post system means that in each electorate the candidate who garners the most votes wins the seat out-right, even if a relatively small proportion of electors voted for them. This contrasts with most other countries, which have some form of proportional representation, an arguably fairer system that was proposed by Britain’s Liberal Democrats as the subject of a referendum in 2011, but never put to the vote. Their coalition partner, the Conservatives instead substituted alternative voting as the choice put to voters, knowing it would be rejected. First-past-the-post naturally favours established parties over smaller, newer parties. To the extent that those emerging parties are more likely to attract younger voters, whereas established parties are favoured by older folk, who tend to stick to their voting habits, this may further prejudice the voting interests of working families and those working abroad.
Britain is not alone in standing accused of favouring some voters over others. In the US, disputes over election practices and infrastructure that seem to affect some constituents more than others, are becoming more common.
Rather than passively lamenting low voter turnout, governments owe it to their electors to encourage voting, and an obvious first step would be to make it easier for ordinary, working people to vote – including ex-pats. And those citizens should demand that their governments respect their democratic rights by making voting easier.