Democratic Audit on the “scandal” of the poor value taxpayers get for the £800m spent on elections in the UK

by Stephen Tall on March 17, 2014

Ballot paperDemocratic Audit, an independent research organisation based at the London School of Economics, this week published a report, Engaging young voters with enhanced election information. The title may not be the most exciting ever, but the report itself is worth a read. (You can download it here.)

The executive summary from the report’s authors, Patrick Dunleavy and Richard Berry, sets out the current problem as they see it:

Current arrangements in the UK only give very poor, fragmented and old-fashioned feedback to voters about what effect their participation has had, and what election outcomes were. Yet providing good information to voters before elections, and timely feedback afterwards on what happened, is fundamentally important for attracting and sustaining participation.

Different elections are publicized in very different ways and places, often after long delays. The poor online availability of election data in the UK is now something of a scandal. Taxpayers pay a lot for electoral administration – the UK spent almost £800 million administering elections in the past five years – and yet reporting standards and the provision of easy-access information to citizens are very uneven across the country.

The strong barriers to easily finding out what happens when you have voted have serious consequences. Some 91% of people over 55 and with a degree voted in 2010, compared with just 44% of people aged 18-34 and with GCSEs or lower qualifications. The gap in voting between young and old citizens is higher in the UK than in any other developed democracy.

Younger voters are more geographically mobile for university and work reasons, and through private renting. They are especially cut off from the diffuse local channels of political information that work better for older voters, who use public services more and are long established in a community.

More comprehensive and accessible online and digital sources of information need to be developed to reach all voters. Yet the need is especially urgent for younger voters in their 20s and 30s. Improved provision could easily be implemented speedily and at low cost, in time for the 2015 general election.

I think they’re onto something here. Whatever your view on police and crime commissioners, the elections were a farce: the turnout was just 15%, much lower than local elections, with little or no information available to voters. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but I’d say there was a link.

After all, 42% of voters turned out for the alternative vote referendum in 2011, even though the media said no-one was interested in the topic, and that time plenty of information was available to voters, including an information booklet posted to every home in the UK.

Dunleavy and Berry offer four recommendations, summarised below:

  • The Cabinet Office, government and Electoral Commission should urgently review the easy-access online provision of election information before all forms of UK elections, and the timely online provision of election results after voting, with the aim of achieving common and robust standards across all elections and radical improvements in digital access by the 2015 general election.
  • These bodies also consider how integrated, comprehensive sources of election results can encourage the easy development of voting and participation apps (on phones and PCs) by the widest possible range of media, charities, NGOs, universities and parties.
  • A large-scale local experiment with online and weekend voting should be organized as soon as feasible.
  • Lowering the voting age to 16 is a low-risk measure. It could offer many advantages in engaging young voters while they are still at home, and compensate for some adverse by-product implications of five year Parliaments for young people’s opportunities to participate.

Their report is well worth a read, as it looks at many of the variables at play in voter turnout: not just age and educational status, but also home-owner versus renter and length of residency. There are also some interesting international comparisons, reviewing how other countries ensure comprehensive results information is available to voters. Here’s the link to the report again.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.