Electoral Commission report calls for better political education in Wales

Nia Thomas, Research and Campaigns Officer

Posted on the 22nd September 2022

The Electoral Commission report on May 2022’s local elections in Wales, published yesterday, highlights that the extension of the franchise is only the first step in ensuring the participation of new groups of voters in Welsh elections.

The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 was hailed as an important step in increasing democracy through the extension of the right to vote to 16 & 17 year olds as well as qualifying foreign nationals in all devolved elections. But as the report shows, extending the franchise alone is not enough.

Only an estimated 1 in 5 (12,338) newly enfranchised 16 & 17 year olds registered to vote ahead of the local elections in Wales. While 81 per cent of voters in general were satisfied with the process of registering to vote, the satisfaction levels dropped to 70 per cent for this age group. There is a clear deficit in turnout between those under 35 years old compared to older age groups.

The feedback from young people, along with those who work with them, was that they still lack the knowledge on how to participate in democratic processes. This lack of knowledge, combined with a lack of information on parties and candidates results in less motivation to get involved in elections.

These deficits in knowledge were echoed by parents, 77% of whom think that it is important for children to learn the basics of democracy, politics and voting at school. But only 22% think that the information their children currently get is sufficient.

Combined, these data informed the first recommendation of the report:

Report Recommendation 1

Welsh Government should consider continuing to provide an additional resource to local authorities to increase registration rates and support participation amongst newly enfranchised and under-registered groups, building upon the work carried out by the Electoral Registration Support Officers.

ERS Cymru has long called for better political education in Wales to bridge this knowledge gap and ensure that all newly enfranchised voters have the tools they need to participate and make informed decisions when it comes to voting.

Our work over the last two years building and convening Democracy Group Cymru, a network of over 60 organisations working with newly enfranchised voters in Wales, has shown that longer lasting, more innovative engagement is needed to increase democratic participation.

We echo the Electoral Commission’s call for the Welsh Government to continue providing additional resources to help increase registration rates through activities that promote engagement and impart information. There is all too often a rush ahead of any given election to engage those less likely to vote. We advocate for a longer term approach that sees democratic engagement and political education activities supported outside of election periods. The New Curriculum for Wales provides one opportunity for this under its aim to support learners to become ‘ethical, informed citizens who understand and exercise their human and democratic responsibilities and rights.’ The report states that this provides:

“…an opportunity for democratic awareness to be woven consistently through education,
rather than being a standalone topic during an election.”

This requires that teachers themselves have both the knowledge and the confidence to teach political literacy, a concern that was highlighted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy’s report The Missing Link. They found that only 1 per cent of teachers in England felt ‘fully prepared’ to develop young people’s political literacy. This is a concern that we’ve heard more anecdotally in Wales too, making it vital that teachers get the support they need to confidently weave democratic awareness into their lessons.

The deficit in engagement from younger would-be voters is set against the backdrop of an overall local election turnout that was 4 percent lower than in 2017 (38% in 2022, 42% in 2017). This varied across the country from a high of 56.5% in Monmouthshire County Council to a low of 31.3% in Torfaen County Borough Council, and even more so by ward with 70.5% turnout in Rogerstone North Ward, Newport City contrasted with just 9.6% turnout in Llanwern Ward also in Newport City. The overall picture is that once again we see a devolved election that has failed to engage the majority of the electorate. So, as well as engaging newly enfranchised voters in democracy, we still have work to do in engaging those over 18 missing from the register or who don’t head to the ballot box.

The top five reasons given in the EC report for not voting in the local elections were:

  • lack of time/too busy (18%)
  • not interested/fed up with politics (12%)
  • vote wouldn’t have made a difference to the outcome/ doesn’t count (11%)
  • medical/health reasons not related to COVID-19 (9%)
  • didn’t like the candidates/parties/they didn’t represent my views (8%)

If we combine those with a sense of apathy towards the system with those with a sense of apathy towards the political parties/candidates then nearly 1/3 of respondents (31%) didn’t vote for reasons of democratic disengagement.

The reasons given by 16-24 year olds for not voting were largely the same as the respondents overall. Two places where their response differed were a higher percentage (23 per cent) cited lack of time/too busy as their reason and 16 per cent said they forgot about voting (compared to 7 per cent across the whole sample). This suggests that voting may be seen as less important to this age group, perhaps in part due to the timing issues of exams, alongside the more widespread sentiments of democratic engagement.

It is therefore crucial that we work together to understand and fight this apathy on all fronts. Designing for greater accessibility may help improve engagement, but ultimately we also need people both young and old to care about their vote and be confident in its ability to affect change.

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