Published on May 16, 2016

Calling all new mayors: three steps to boosting voter turnout

People & participation

By Sarah Allan

Sarah Allan is Engagement Lead at Involve. She has a wide ranging background in research, campaigning and project management, and a long-standing belief in the need to transform how UK decision-making works.

17219543648_cf1556bcab_zThe turnout statistics from ‘Super Thursday’ make dismal reading. Whilst turnout in Scotland and Northern Ireland crept above 50%, elsewhere it laboured below – and in some cases well below – halfway.  The fact that the figures for Scotland and Wales are the second highest since devolution began is hardly a cause for celebration. And no doubt more detailed analysis will also reveal that some people – for example, the wealthier and older – were more likely to vote than others.

Amongst the lists of gloomy statistics, what particularly caught my eye was the percentage of voters who took part in the four mayoral contests – London (45.3%), Bristol (44.9%), Liverpool (30.9%), Salford (30%). Not great. But what should be done about it? What could a newly elected mayor do to boost and equalise electoral participation in their area?

Some campaigners and commentators would suggest changes focussed on electoral procedures. Debates about online voting, automatic voter registration, polling station opening hours and so on feature here. Other analysts would point to a need for more charismatic candidates and the beneficial effect of tightly fought contests.

Some of these ideas might well make a small difference – and some of them, particularly around voter registration should have been implemented long ago. But as a set of solutions, they seem to me to be focussed in the wrong place. If people are not voting because they don’t believe it makes a difference, because they don’t trust politicians, or because the world of politics feels remote from their lives, then making voting more convenient is not going to result in many more people rushing to the ballot box.

Instead, the new mayors could take a three-step approach to raising turnout:

  1. Start with the data: The mayor could ask for analysis of turnout data from recent elections to identify groups – be they geographic or demographic – who are less likely to vote.  They could also request existing research into why people in these groups don’t vote, potentially conducting targeted projects to fill in any knowledge gaps.
  2. Learning from what’s already working: The mayor could then commission research focussed on identifying and reviewing relevant existing initiatives in their area, the UK and beyond. The aim would be to collect evidence about what works. So for example:
  • Bite the Ballot already runs a programme of in-school lessons that successfully encourages young people to register to vote.
  • There is growing evidence that engaging people in decision-making between elections affects turnout. A Department for Communities and Local Government evaluation found that UK participatory budgeting (PB) projects can increase turnout, where improving participation in elections is a project aim. Indeed in Manton in the East Midlands, it found turnout rose by 29%. There is no reason that increasing turnout couldn’t be a specific aim of engagement processes beyond PB too.
  • The research could explore engagement initiatives working successfully with the same communities to achieve different aims.
  1. Begin work now – and evaluate it: The mayor could use the results of Steps 1 and 2 to inform the development of a number of ambitious pilot projects aimed at increasing turnout. Crucially, the pilots would need proper evaluation, enabling them to capture and improve their impacts – and ultimately helping the mayor make an informed judgement as to whether or not to roll them out further. These projects would need to start as soon as possible: they will take time to design and implement, not least as building trusted relationships with communities and their leaders cannot be done overnight.

A project structured around these three steps would, in my view, have the potential to transform electoral participation in local areas. It could also serve as a model for other parts of the UK – and even further afield. I hope at least one of the new mayors will make it happen.

All turnout statistics used in this article were kindly provided by Chris Terry, Research Officer, Electoral Reform Society

Image credit: RachelH_, Flickr creative commons

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