While the Wales Act’s passing earlier this year didn’t come without its challenges, the legislation does mean that a range of new powers will soon be devolved to Wales, including those over elections.
This ultimately gives Wales a chance to do elections differently, to change the way they work in order to increase participation and make more people feel that engaging in the political system is worthwhile.
Turnout has been a challenge in Welsh elections specifically. While June’s General Election saw a rise of 3% in terms of the numbers who voted bringing a total turnout of 68.6%, turnout in Assembly elections and local elections has been stubbornly low. Last May 45.3% of registered voters went to their local polling station to vote in the fifth assembly elections, while this May just 42.3% of voters took part in the council elections across Wales.
Participation isn’t the only problem with our elections. In this year’s local elections 92 seats were uncontested and we saw a staggeringly low number of female candidates, meaning we now have two local authorities with no women at all in their cabinets.
Having power over elections gives us a chance to tackle these problems head on, and early signs are encouraging.
In July the Welsh Government published a consultation on reforming local elections in Wales, while a separate panel is looking specifically at issues relating to the Assembly.
The local government consultation closed this week following an extensive engagement period and ERS Cymru has spent the last few months developing our full response – which you can read here.
The consultation document itself offered a range of options that could lead to a major shakeup in the way local elections will be run in the future, with votes at 16, electronic voting and a type of PR on the table.
In terms of ERS Cymru’s response we have been delighted to see such support for the lowering of the voting age to 16. 16 and 17 year olds are perhaps more engaged than ever, yet as the European Referendum has shown are being denied a say in their future. Our ‘Missing Voices’ project has recently been traveling across Wales talking to a wide range of people about how they feel about politics and elections. We have been bowled over by the passion of 16 and 17 year olds that we have spoken to about this issue and think the timing couldn’t be any better for extending the voting age.
The Welsh Government’s consultation also detailed a number of different ways of voting, including the potential of voting on different days and in different places. We do know that access to polling stations in local elections is an issue. As our full response outlines there is some evidence to suggest that in local elections (rather than general elections) you are less likely to vote the further you are from a polling station. A study on voter turnout by planning expert Orford and local government election experts Rallings and Thrasher in the London Borough of Brent found that turnout could be boosted by up to 5 points with careful polling station placement. The study found that turnout in local elections seemed to decrease markedly once polling stations were moved more than 600m from voters.
Having the option to vote in more than one polling station or place could also be a potential gamechanger for voters. This is about elections being more flexible to the needs of voters in modern times and the possibility of voting wherever is easiest for you would surely make voting much more convenient and achievable for a lot of voters. Of course this could be practically difficult in terms of local elections, where wards are often much smaller in urban areas, but we are supportive of this in principle and hope the practical implications can be addressed.
One area of the consultation we have been cautious on is the proposed change to a ‘permissive’ PR model of electoral systems. This would lead to a patchwork of different voting systems for the same elections across Wales, which we believe would be hugely complex and costly to administer and complicate matters for voters. This is an ideal opportunity for a wholesale change of our voting system from a failing First Past the Post (FPTP) system to a much more proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV). In May’s election nearly 130,000 voters found themselves with no choice as 92 seats in Wales were uncontested. At the first local STV election in Scotland, the average number of candidates standing per ward went from 3.4 in 2003 under FPTP to 7.1. In 2012 under STV, and the proportion of people seeing their first choice candidate elected soared from 52% in 2003 to 77% in 2012.
We hope the Welsh Government will recognise the evidence in favour of STV and the opportunity to make this significant change in this legislation.
In general though, we believe these proposed changes have the opportunity to tackle some of the huge challenges that Wales faces in terms of elections. It is not good enough that the vast majority of people are not engaging at all in the elections closest to home. The results of these elections impact our everyday lives, from what it means for health and education policy, to how often bins get collected, to the speed limit in your local streets.
Will these changes completely change the problems above? No, but they’re a very good place to start.