How can turnout at local elections be increased?

JenniferTankardWith all the noise about the European elections on May 22nd and speculation about whether UKIP will win the largest or second largest number of MEPs, it is easy to forget that local elections also take place on the same day.

There are 4,161 local election seats up for grabs including all 32 London Boroughs, all 36 metropolitan boroughs, 74 district authorities, 20 unitary authorities and five mayoral posts, all in England. Elections to new councils in Northern Ireland also take place.

Partly because the local and Euro elections take place on the same day, at a national level the political parties are campaigning on national issues. Local political groups are publishing their own local manifestos focused on local issues. But a quick scan of various manifestos shows a lot of consensus between local groups on what they think matters to local people. Freezing council tax, protecting frontline services, tackling crime and improving the quality of local environments are all popular choices for manifesto commitments. National themes are embedded within these ‘local’ manifestos.

Local Labour manifestos make much of the damage of the coalition government’s cuts and the need to tackle the cost of living crisis. Conservative candidates are majoring on infrastructure investment and local job creation. Liberal Democrats are going for a ‘fairer, greener, safer’ theme. Given the wet winter we have had it is inevitable that potholes and pavements are also popular campaign themes. Of course there are some very specific local issues raised. In Plymouth the Conservatives are committed to getting rid of ‘silly mini roundabouts that annoy everyone’. In Warrington, Liberal Democrats want two hours of free car parking. Labour in Hastings are going for that much beloved favourite of local campaigners everywhere, ‘renewed action on dog fouling’.

Is it any surprise then that local voters are likely to greet these commitments and the chance to express local ‘choice’ with a collective yawn?

Voter turnout at local elections remains low and is always a source of political and chatterati angst immediately after the election results come in.  Turnout at the 2012 elections was a paltry 31.3%, with turnout in Manchester Central a rock bottom 18.16%, although that at least beat the 15% turn out for last year’s police and crime commission elections. Experiments in new voting methods have made little difference. Enthusiasts of greater local devolution blame it on the lack of local council autonomy, some (but not many) call for compulsory voting and the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk has suggested that if an area has a less than 20% turnout, the election should be declared void and the area go without representation.

Does voter turnout at local elections matter? Voters may be content to leave it to those with the energy and enthusiasm to pursue potholes, dog fouling and mini roundabouts with vim and vigour.

But robust voter turnout is viewed as fundamental to a healthy democracy. Low turnout is usually attributed to political disengagement and a belief that it makes no difference. It is also associated with more extremist parties getting a greater share of the vote as they can mobilise their core vote more easily than mainstream parties. So what is to be done?

Research in the USA has shown that a simple ‘thank you’ can encourage people to turn out to vote. A series of experiments showed that thanking voters increased turnout by 2.4% to 3.1%. This may not seem like a significant increase but used in conjunction with other measures, such as personalised mailings and better use of social media, it may, at least, halt the downward slide.



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