Holding elections during a pandemic is never going to be easy. But it has happened over a hundred times across the world since last March – and there are ways to do it safely.
Public bodies and the government must do everything to reassure voters this May. Recent polling for the campaign group Hope Not Hate and the National Education Union finds that 26% of people say they are less likely to go to the polling stations to vote for the May elections because of the current Covid-19 pandemic. There are understandable fears here that can be allayed with good planning.
But a closer look at the polling reveals some more interesting findings, looking at the main reason people are not enthusiastic about voting in these local elections.
Failed by First Past the Post
Of those who said they would definitely not vote in the May elections, the main reason cited (by a quarter of non-voters) was the belief their vote “would not make a difference”. That reason was cited by double the proportion of those who said they were not going to vote over fears of catching Covid.
This is really stark, and it’s rooted in the failings of the First Past the Post electoral system used to pick MPs, and councillors in England.
Because the simple fact is, the vast majority of votes do go ignored under the current warped system. When one party takes all – on a fraction of the vote – people understandably feel alienated and voiceless.
There’s also a major age gap highlighted in the polling. Just 21% of 18-24 year olds say they’re ‘very likely’ to vote this May, compared to 58% of the wider population.
This bodes badly for the future health of our democracy. Young people should have a stake in our political system, but too often feel locked out.
Part of that may also be how out-dated our voting systems are as a whole. The Hope Not Hate polling found that, across the board, voters back making it easier to vote by post this election.
Barriers to the taking part
While many councils are encouraging postal votes, promotional efforts are likely to vary a lot – with one council even pushing new – and only new – voters to show ID when applying, creating an unfair divide.
Moreover, you still have to print off and send a postal vote form to get one, despite 30% of people not having a working printer at home. Meanwhile, you cannot even check if you’re registered to vote online.
Roxana Khan-Williams, Campaigns Officer at Hope not hate, stated that “even in normal times, local and devolved elections struggle with lower turnout, so we have to do everything possible to help people vote in May.”
The government and local authorities need to do everything possible to make the May elections run as smoothly as possible for voters. But ministers also need to tackle the real impediment to voting: a disastrous, one-party-takes-all voting system that leaves millions out in the cold.
Tara Azar is a placement student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.
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