Pippa Norris: How to make 'wasted votes' count

Share

Britain has seen widespread concern about the erosion of voter participation. In the 2001 general election, about 26 million people voted - 59.4 per cent of the total electorate.

Britain has seen widespread concern about the erosion of voter participation. In the 2001 general election, about 26 million people voted - 59.4 per cent of the total electorate.

Historically this was the lowest turnout recorded in British general elections since the "khaki" election of 1918. Equally remarkable, it was also the lowest in any postwar general election in any EU country.

A forthcoming study, Britain Votes 2005, found that of more than 43 million eligible electors, almost 17 million abstained on 5 May 2005. Turnout was 61.2 per cent, up 1.8 per cent on 2001, an extremely modest rise which could be attributed to many factors. Public interest may have been stimulated by strongly emotional issues debated during the campaign, notably the Iraq war and asylum-seekers.

Compared with 2001, a closer outcome was widely predicted by the final opinion polls and discussed by many media commentators. Turnout was about 10 per cent higher in marginal seats: the closer the anticipated outcome in any election, the greater the incentive for electors to cast a ballot and for parties to mobilise their support through get-out-the-vote drives.

The rise could also be attributed to reforms introduced by Parliament, notably the adoption of the rolling register and also the easier access to postal ballots, which were issued to an estimated 12 per cent of the electorate, although fewer used them.

Despite these initiatives, turnout remained well below the 76 per cent average in postwar general elections until 1997.

Can Britain learn from other nations? Electoral participation has always varied a lot among established democracies. During the 1990s, for example, elections in Iceland, Israel, and Sweden saw more than 80 per cent turning out at the ballot box, compared with less than half in the US and Switzerland.

Many factors contribute to these variations but one of the most important factors is the voting system. National legislative elections using proportional representation usually generate higher turnout than elections held under majoritarian systems such as Britain's first-past-the-post. A comparison of elections during the 1990s in 164 nations found that turnout was 70 per cent under all PR systems, 10 per cent higher than in countries using majoritarian systems like ours.

The most plausible explanation emphasises the "wasted vote" syndrome. In majoritarian systems, supporters of minor and fringe parties, such as the Greens, the BNP or Respect, have good reason to feel that their votes will make no difference to who wins in their constituency, still less to the overall composition of government and the policy agenda. This argument is strongest in safe seats where the incumbent is unlikely to be defeated.

In contrast, PR elections with low vote thresholds and with many members elected from each district, such as the party list system used in the Netherlands, increase minor parties' chances, and this increases the incentive for their supporters to participate.

British turnout in European elections remains dismal despite a regional party list system, because of lack of interest in the outcome. Nevertheless, PR for Westminster would provide a fairer system for minor parties with dispersed support, it would probably increase the proportion of women MPs, and it would probably also significantly strengthen British turnout.

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University. She is the co-editor (with Christopher Wlezien) of Britain Votes 2005, Oxford University Press, to be published in August 2005

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral