Low turnout is a gift to candidates who have cash to spend

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 26th August 2012

For some people, low turnout is an opportunity.

In the last week we’ve gained enormous traction for our report that Police and Crime Commissioner elections are set for record low turnout – 18.5%, quite possibly the lowest in British history.

But who really gains from low turnout? At home and abroad it’s the candidates – and the companies that seek to assist them – that have profited from record low turnouts in police elections.

And ‘profit’ in this case is both literal and figurative. As one Tom Waterhouse writes in his blog at Rhombus Communications this week:

“For any candidate hoping to become a Police Crime Commissioner, the prospect of an 18.5% turnout should grab your attention like a blue-flashing light in your rear view mirror. Elections on that kind of turnout means your “short campaign” activities and polling day operations will be absolutely vital, because the lower the turnout, the lower margin of victory for the winning candidate.”

Low turnout is a gift to candidates who have the resources and the form to make the most of it. Tom elaborates, with Gloucestershire as the case in point:

“An 18.5% turnout means just 84,000 people will vote. Taking into consideration national opinion polls and parliamentary constituency results from 2010, you could expect the race to be quite close with perhaps the winning candidate having around 41%, then, say, 36%, 15% and 7%. That would give a majority of 4,000. That’s tiny compared to the 445,000 electorate.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. If you’re going to win you have to focus unrelentingly on a tiny minority of voters. He adds:

“In terms of squeezing the most out of your campaign efforts in low turnout elections, targeting is absolutely crucial because candidates need their resources focussed on electors most likely to vote. For this, the information contained in previous elections’ Marked Registers is solid gold.”

And this isn’t exactly unusual. Just look to America where 5% turnouts aren’t unknown for sheriff elections. One US e-advocacy company advertises itself thusly:

“The election of a county sheriff is often decided by only a handful of votes. Even a single vote can make the difference between victory and defeat. Election campaigns for sheriff often have low voter turnout because it often occurs on dates that do not match the general election. Because of this, the winner often is the person who can get more people to the polls. That requires getting your supporters motivated enough to go out and actually cast a vote.

Because the challenges of sheriff elections are not much different than any other local elected position, a sheriff campaign website can help make the difference!”

In these elections a handful of votes will count. That’s the reality. And companies are stepping into the gap to give the candidates that can afford their services an edge in campaigns.  Should we condemn these entrepreneurs? Absolutely not. They’re simply pointing potential clients to a very real opportunity.

That handful of votes will swing an election. Professional campaigners would be mad to ignore it. Their clients, the candidates, would be mad to ignore it. And that’s because in the often grubby business of securing votes the only thing that counts is a win.

But what about the rest of us? A higher turnout is in all our interests. The Police Federation warned this week that a low turnout is an open door to extremists. Empty polling stations mean we can expect candidates supported by a tiny minority of voters claiming a ‘mandate’ to take the decisions that affect all of us.

The Government decided to press ahead with elected Police and Crime Commissioners. But if they’re going to be legitimate we need the Government to take some common sense steps to ensure a decent turnout.

Tell the Government. If you’re going to have elected Police Commissioners, do it right.

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