This week, the blog will be focusing on some of the wider issues raised by last week’s local elections – the voting system, the impact of apparent Alphabetis, the low representation of women (and others). To kick us off, a fantastic guest post on low turnout and compulsory voting from Susan Dalgety.
Susan is an independent communications adviser, focusing on public policy campaigns, gender and international development. She was a Labour councillor in Edinburgh (1992 – 99) and Jack McConnell’s chief press officer during much of his time as First Minister.
I was following the 2012 council election results on Twitter last Friday as I simultaneously proofed a project proposal for training women candidates for Malawi’s 2014 local elections.
I don’t need my crystal ball to predict that the turnout in Malawi in two years time will be much higher than Scotland’s was on 3 May, with less than 40 per cent of Scots exercising their hard won right to vote. Let’s not even mention the dire 32 per cent average that our English neighbours managed.
Last time Malawians went to the polls in 2009, the turn out was 76 per cent. Stop and think about that for a moment.
Most of Malawi’s 14 million population don’t have a bike, let alone a car. Women and girls spend much of their day walking miles to collect water. And there is no long and proud tradition of multi-party democracy, as there is here in Scotland. Malawi’s first democratic elections were less than twenty years ago.
Yet more than three quarters of the adult population played their part in their 2009 elections– and there is nothing to suggest that the turnout for the 2014 elections will be any less.
By contrast, in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, only half of eligible Scots (50.4 per cent) managed to drag themselves along to the polling station – probably moaning every inch of the way about the weather, that they were missing Corrie, that all politicians are the same, so why bother.
But at least they made the effort. What about the other half who couldn’t be bothered?
A healthy dose of voter cynicism is essential in any functioning democracy, and as a non-driver a rainy day does make voting that bit more miserable, but seriously folks, voting is our civic duty.
How hard can it be to turn up once every few years to play your part in choosing the people who will oversee the economy, run the health service, manage schools, collect our household rubbish – and send our young men and women to war.
Opting out of voting is opting out of adult life. The women of Malawi understand that. Even as they are squeezing dirty water out of the ground to make porridge for their children, they know that the democratic process will – eventually – bring them piped water and sewage drains. Voting will change their life.
And it changes our lives too. Remember Thatcher? The “new dawn” of 1 May, 1997? As for the #indyref – a vote there has the potential to change history.
So how do we get people back to the ballot box? No point in depending on the political parties – they have failed. They have, largely, given up on the people who need a bit more persuasion to vote, preferring instead to concentrate on getting out their “core” vote.
We need to make voting compulsory. Just like paying council tax, sending children to school and buying a TV licence. We might only ever watch Sky Sport on our iPads, but 95 per cent of us stump up £142.50 a year to pay for the BBC, largely without complaining.
Imagine if election turnout was 95 percent.
Well it can be – it is in Australia where failure to vote is subject to a fine. Since the national introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, turnout has been over 90 per cent at every election.
In exchange, voting is made as easy as possible. Elections are held on a Saturday, postal ballots are widespread and you can vote in any state polling place if you are away from home.
And compulsory voting doesn’t oblige people to support candidates or parties – spoiling a ballot paper is always an option as the wag from Edinburgh’s Morningside showed last week. “I hate you all” this disgruntled citizen scrawled across his – or her ballot paper. But at least he – or she – took part.
The positives of compulsory voting far outweigh the negatives.
Our parliaments and council chambers will truly reflect the will of the people – for better or worse.
Ministers and council executives will have to be much more thoughtful about policy and much better at service delivery.
And political parties can campaign on the issues rather than simply worrying about getting people out to vote.
So what are we waiting for – we have nothing to lose but our apathy.