This week the Welsh Government announced an exciting series of pilots on flexible voting – trialling, for the first time, new ways to make it easier for Welsh voters to access the ballot box.
Since 1931 every UK General Election has been held on a Thursday and typically local elections and elections to our devolved parliaments and administrations have followed suit. There are a number of reasons for this, including one commonly cited being that it was traditionally market day in many towns. Yet, just because something has traditionally been done one way doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the right way to do it now.
Now four local authorities in Wales will be using the local elections in May to trial new ways for voters to access the ballot box. The pilots will be testing whether voting on different days and in different places might make it easier for people to vote.
Early voting trials in Wales
In Blaenau Gwent, the Ebbw Vale Learning Zone (a local college) will be used as an advanced polling station for early voting on the Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the election, which all residents in the county will be able to access. This will include students of the college, who are above the age of 16.
In Bridgend, some wards where there has traditionally been low turnout will be given the option to vote early. In these areas polling stations will be open on the Tuesday and Wednesday before election day. A school in the area will also have an advance polling station where students will be able to vote.
Weekend voting in Caerphilly and Torfaen
In both Caerphilly and Torfaen council offices in Ystrad Mynach and Pontypool will be used as an advance polling station for all residents of the county on the weekend before election day.
Early voting and weekend voting are common in democracies around the world, so it will be interesting to see how they work for Wales.
These pilots herald an exciting development for Welsh democracy, trialling ideas that ERS Cymru has long called for.
Just last year we saw the franchise in Wales extended for the first time for Senedd elections, allowing every resident of Wales above the age of 16 to cast their vote. This now also applies to local elections meaning 16 and 17 year olds and all foreign nationals resident in Wales will be able to cast their vote in May.
But we know that extending the franchise alone doesn’t guarantee that people will turn up to vote. To do that we need to look at removing barriers from our democracy and creating opportunities that make it easier for people to vote.
It’s not just the newly enfranchised who need encouragement to vote either. At the last local elections in 2017 turnout was 41%. Turnout for Senedd elections has never hit 50%. Overhauling and improving Welsh democracy is a big task.
We know that we have to do more to tackle Wales’ democratic deficit and the pilots look set to be the first step in a big emphasis on this within Wales. The Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, spoke about this at a Fair Vote fringe at Welsh Labour conference recently. He made the point that the pilots would play a role in showing the mechanics of how things like early voting and digital registers might work, ahead of more detailed legislation next year.
These flexible voting pilots could be part of that picture, alongside better political education in schools and stronger public information campaigns. This feels like a really exciting time for innovation in our elections, bringing democracy much closer to where it should be in 2022.
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