Since elections were devolved to Wales in the Wales Act 2017 there have been a lot of changes for Welsh democracy. We’ve seen the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds and foreign nationals for both Senedd and local elections in Wales. Plans are being made to reform the Senedd, and local councils now have the choice of what electoral system they use allowing them to move away from the unfair First Past the Post to the much more proportional Single Transferable Vote.
The latest proposals to reform our democracy coming from the Welsh Government look set to make further changes, altering the foundations of how elections work in Wales. The consultation on the Electoral Reform and Administration White Paper, which has just been completed, outlines a number of suggestions for how barriers to democracy can be removed and voting can be made more accessible. The summary of our response is now available.
The recent 2021 Senedd elections and 2022 local elections highlighted why change is needed. Both saw disappointing turnout, with hopes that the Senedd might finally cross the 50% turnout threshold crushed. With the franchise being extended for the first time in 2021, issues around the registration and electoral process were also clear. Only around half of 16 and 17 year olds registered to vote in that election.
Many of the proposals in the white paper consultation attempt to address issues around low registration rates and remove barriers to casting a vote. This includes progressive proposals to pilot automatic voter registration, to create a single, digital register and to extend pilots on voting in different places and on different days.
ERS Cymru has welcomed these proposals having long called for automatic voter registration. The moves to develop a system of automated registration, whereby registration officers can notify potential voters of their impending addition to the register, will go a huge way to simplifying the registration process. According to the latest Accuracy and Completeness estimates from the Electoral Commission, the local government register in Wales was just 81% complete and 89% accurate as of December 2018. As we saw in the Senedd elections in 2021, many young people did not register to vote. The Making Votes at 16 Work in Wales Report identified voter registration as a particular issue for young people, saying “a number of those who were not initially aware of the election and their need to register to vote explained that by the time they learnt of the elections it was too late to register to vote”.
Extending pilots on flexible voting is also to be welcomed. In last May’s local elections we saw four local authorities trial early voting and voting in different places, including in education settings such as schools and colleges. May 2022’s pilots proved that this can work, in terms of the technology required to make it happen, and that people will turn out to vote in these locations on different days. We’d be particularly interested in extending voting options in schools given the extension of the franchise and the success of the early voting option at a Bridgend school during the pilots earlier this year where advance turnout was significantly higher at 18% compared with the county as a whole 1.5%, although the sample size was small. The challenge with changing the way that people can vote will always be how best to communicate it to the public, and we would hope that communication around pilots could be improved.
Other areas to be welcomed in the white paper concern improving information around democracy. ERS Cymru has long emphasised the need for better democratic education to be ingrained in the new curriculum for Wales, alongside more widespread teacher training to improve the confidence of teachers and end the current postcode lottery on citizenship education in Wales.
Proposals around a voter information platform have a lot of potential. Currently the onus is on the voter to do the legwork to find out information ahead of an election, and this information is currently held in many different places. ERS Cymru and the Democracy Group Cymru have called for a ‘one stop shop’ for voters to easily access information about forthcoming elections. An online voter information platform could provide this ‘one stop shop’, on an accessible and easily searchable site, for example on a ‘vote.wales’ specific website. This could contain information on registration and the election itself, background about what the election is for (e.g. how the Senedd works), and links to educational resources.
In the six years since elections have been devolved to Wales many changes have taken place, but this white paper promises to transform them further. Hopefully some of these proposals will be in place for the next Senedd elections in 2026. It is right that Wales explores how elections can be done differently and made to work for voters. This is a really exciting precipice of a better democracy for our nation.
Support the work of ERS Cyrmu
Join the Electoral Reform Society