The question is not who you vote for - but how

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Local elections are being held on Thursday. Nothing new or exciting in that you might think. Except that you might have already voted. Or you may not have to go to your local polling station to vote at all. For Thursday sees some of the biggest changes to the way we run elections since Victorian times. And it is all in an attempt to persuade us that we should actually go and vote.

Local elections are being held on Thursday. Nothing new or exciting in that you might think. Except that you might have already voted. Or you may not have to go to your local polling station to vote at all. For Thursday sees some of the biggest changes to the way we run elections since Victorian times. And it is all in an attempt to persuade us that we should actually go and vote.

Traditionally, politicians are worried that we will vote for their opponents. But now they are concerned that increasingly we do not think it worth the effort of voting for any of them. Each of the last three years have seen record low turnouts - the 1997 general election, the 1998 local elections and last year's European elections.

In 1997, 71 per cent of us went to the polls, the lowest level since 1929. In the 1998 local elections that figure plummeted to just 30 per cent, around ten points below the norm, and things were only marginally better in the local elections held last year. In the European elections just 24 per cent of us decided to send a message to Strasbourg. Even before these latest figures, Britain was already at the bottom of the European Union league table for local and European election voting. Now it is not clear that she even deserves a wooden spoon.

So how might we reverse this trend? The government has decided that perhaps it might help if it were easier for us to vote. So for this year's local elections it has launched a series of experiments to test the possible impact of a whole variety of possible innovations. If any of them are deemed successful they may well be introduced across the whole country, not just for local elections but for general elections too.

Unlike many of our European neighbours we traditionally hold our elections on a Thursday, a normal working day, rather than on a Sunday when most people are off work. Perhaps we would find it easier to vote at the weekend. To see whether this might be the case the election in Watford will take place not this Thursday but next Saturday and Sunday instead.

Another way around the problem that people may be busy on a Thursday is to give them the chance to vote early. In over a dozen local councils, voters have been able to vote before Thursday, usually by going to the local town hall or some other central location. The days for early voting have varied from district to district, but some included the weekend. In London, for example, voters were given the chance to cast their ballot last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

But perhaps we do not want to go to the polling station at all. Maybe we would prefer simply to deal with our vote at the same time as we pay our bills. So in some 17 wards, scattered across seven districts, the polling stations will not open at all on Thursday. Instead everyone has been given the chance to vote by post. In another variant in four other districts, the polling stations will open on Thursday, but everyone who preferred to could vote by post. Meanwhile in Manchester if you have no wish to go to a polling station on Thursday you will be able to vote while you are doing your shopping in the supermarket instead. Yet will these and the other ideas that are being tried, such as extending polling station opening hours and taking a ballot box to the homes of people who are too ill to go to the polls, help reverse the decline in turnout? If it is easier to vote, will we do so? And could it be enough to get us off the bottom of the European Union league table?

Evidence collected by the British Social Attitudes survey suggests we should not set our expectations too high. A couple of years ago the survey asked people whether they thought they would be more or less likely to vote in a local election if changes were made to the way elections were run. And around three in five of those who did not vote in their last local election said that voting at the weekend, voting at home by post, or being able to vote while out shopping in the supermarket would make no difference to their likelihood of voting. Innovative they may be, but Thursday's experiments seems unlikely to be revolutionary in their impact.

Moreover, when it comes to postal voting, at least, we have some doubts about whether it is a good idea at all. By a majority of three to two we say that people ought to have to go to the polling station to vote because that is the only way to be sure that the elections are run fairly. Evidently one of the questions that will have to be asked after Thursday is not just simply whether more people voted under the new arrangements, but whether there was no danger of cheating or fraud.

The real problem is that making it easier to vote is unlikely to touch the real reason why many of us increasingly think that voting in local elections is not worth the effort. This is that we do not think that the results of local elections make any difference. Back in 1965 as many as 70 per cent of us agreed that "the way that people decide to vote in local elections is the main thing that decides how things are run in this area". Now that number has tumbled to just half amongst the electorate as a whole and no more than 41 per cent amongst those who did not vote in their last local election. There are few better predictors of who does and does not go to the polls than the answers to this question.

Doubtless this trend is a reflection of the growing encroachment of central government on the powers of local government. And despite past Labour criticisms of Conservative governments on this score, that is an encroachment that the current Labour government shows little sign of wanting to reverse.

Another trend that the current government will not want to reverse is its yawning lead in the opinion polls. Yet research by the British Election Study has suggested that voters are less likely to go to the polls if they think the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And that in recent years has been the message they have been consistently receiving. But we should perhaps not despair entirely. Thursday's voting experiments may not be enough to get us off the bottom of the European Union league table, but they may have some benefit. While the majority of non-voters in the British Social Attitudes survey may have said that weekend voting would not make any difference to their likelihood of voting, 29 per cent did say that they would be more likely to vote, while just 6 per cent said they were less likely. The figures are similar for postal and supermarket voting.

If everyone acted on their word in this survey then turnout might rise as much as ten points. However, voters can be notoriously optimistic about their likelihood of going to vote, so adding just a few points to the turnout would seem a more realistic target for Thursday's experiments. But any improvement is perhaps to be welcomed.

 

John Curtice is deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.

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