Democratic Audit on the “scandal” of the poor value taxpayers get for the £800m spent on elections in the UK

Ballot paperDemocratic Audit, an independent research organisation based at the London School of Economics, this week published a report, Engaging young voters with enhanced election information. The title may not be the most exciting ever, but the report itself is worth a read. (You can download it here.)

The executive summary from the report’s authors, Patrick Dunleavy and Richard Berry, sets out the current problem as they see it:

Current arrangements in the UK only give very poor, fragmented and old-fashioned feedback to voters about what effect their participation has had, and what election outcomes were. Yet providing good information to voters before elections, and timely feedback afterwards on what happened, is fundamentally important for attracting and sustaining participation.

Different elections are publicized in very different ways and places, often after long delays. The poor online availability of election data in the UK is now something of a scandal. Taxpayers pay a lot for electoral administration – the UK spent almost £800 million administering elections in the past five years – and yet reporting standards and the provision of easy-access information to citizens are very uneven across the country.

The strong barriers to easily finding out what happens when you have voted have serious consequences. Some 91% of people over 55 and with a degree voted in 2010, compared with just 44% of people aged 18-34 and with GCSEs or lower qualifications. The gap in voting between young and old citizens is higher in the UK than in any other developed democracy.

Younger voters are more geographically mobile for university and work reasons, and through private renting. They are especially cut off from the diffuse local channels of political information that work better for older voters, who use public services more and are long established in a community.

More comprehensive and accessible online and digital sources of information need to be developed to reach all voters. Yet the need is especially urgent for younger voters in their 20s and 30s. Improved provision could easily be implemented speedily and at low cost, in time for the 2015 general election.

I think they’re onto something here. Whatever your view on police and crime commissioners, the elections were a farce: the turnout was just 15%, much lower than local elections, with little or no information available to voters. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but I’d say there was a link.

After all, 42% of voters turned out for the alternative vote referendum in 2011, even though the media said no-one was interested in the topic, and that time plenty of information was available to voters, including an information booklet posted to every home in the UK.

Dunleavy and Berry offer four recommendations, summarised below:

  • The Cabinet Office, government and Electoral Commission should urgently review the easy-access online provision of election information before all forms of UK elections, and the timely online provision of election results after voting, with the aim of achieving common and robust standards across all elections and radical improvements in digital access by the 2015 general election.
  • These bodies also consider how integrated, comprehensive sources of election results can encourage the easy development of voting and participation apps (on phones and PCs) by the widest possible range of media, charities, NGOs, universities and parties.
  • A large-scale local experiment with online and weekend voting should be organized as soon as feasible.
  • Lowering the voting age to 16 is a low-risk measure. It could offer many advantages in engaging young voters while they are still at home, and compensate for some adverse by-product implications of five year Parliaments for young people’s opportunities to participate.

Their report is well worth a read, as it looks at many of the variables at play in voter turnout: not just age and educational status, but also home-owner versus renter and length of residency. There are also some interesting international comparisons, reviewing how other countries ensure comprehensive results information is available to voters. Here’s the link to the report again.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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15 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 17th Mar '14 - 4:13pm

    There is some sensible stuff here, notably about publication of election results. Councils put results on their websites but they are often hidden away in obscure places, and they don’t tell electors about this service in tghe stuff they send out (poll cards and postal votes etc).

    But online voting would be a disaster. There is only one safe and secure way in which people can be guaranteed to vote in person and in secret and that is at a polling station.

    Tony Greaves

  • “These bodies (Cabinet Office, government and Electoral Commission) also consider how integrated, comprehensive sources of election results can encourage the easy development of voting and participation apps (on phones and PCs) by the widest possible range of media, charities, NGOs, universities and parties”.

    Maybe it’s me, or perhaps there is a typo or omission in the quote, but this is surely gibberish? A source of information cannot encourage the development of an app, and apps are not developed by a wide range of anything. I don’t think there is anyone or any organisation I would trust to develop a voting app anyway: like Tony Greaves I believe that the only virtually fraud proof method of voting is to go along to a polling station and put a mark on a piece of paper.

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Mar '14 - 6:01pm

    Seconded. The willy-nilly expansion of postal voting in heedless pursuit of higher turnout has been an appalling weakening of the secret ballot and online voting would be its death-knell.

  • paul barker 17th Mar '14 - 9:12pm

    Like most people with an interest in Politics I have a Postal Vote, I have never seen any evidence of fraud. As far as I can see its much easier to pretend to be someone else at a Polling Station.

  • peter tyzack 18th Mar '14 - 11:04am

    more local polling stations and a shorter period in which to vote would increase the chances of people in the queue(?) for ballot papers to be able to spot an imposter. If the voting day was a designated holiday that would remove excuses not to vote and make the event more of a social/community activity.
    Please don’t hold up the AV referendum as anything but a disaster.. misinformation managed by the ‘no’ campaign and promoted by the media.. we need legislation to stop this happening again.. Except the booklet, theoretically to all households was the start of a good idea. If a leaflet from each candidate was collected by each electoral authority and then distributed to every registered voter, ie an extension of the freemailing (currently general election only), and the press were stopped from being partisan, then we would be nearer to fair elections.. and ban the publication of ‘opinion’ polls during any election period too.

  • I really appreciate Richard Berry taking the trouble to respond to the discussion, but I am not going to be written off as one of “a small minority of people (who) will never come round to the idea (of on line voting).” To suggest that it is “the next step in the advancement of our right to vote” is nonsense: the universal male franchise was an advancement in the right to vote; votes for women was an advancement in the right to vote; the equalisation of rights by the abolition of dual voting; the reduction of the voting age to 18; all those are about rights. Removing the necessity of the voter to take any positive action to participate in the democratic process is not an advancement of rights, and indeed I would see it as a dilution of democratic value. The decline in participation in elections has little or nothing to do with the availability of information, or with the ease or otherwise of casting a vote. It is to do with a growth in cynicism about politics which has partly been created by the behaviour of politicians and then nurtured by the media; it is to do with the lack of socialisation into politics of young people by their parents; it is to do with a reasonably accurate assessment by the electors that power does not reside any more at council or Westminster level; it is to do with the way in which parties have concentrated their energies on the small minority of voters who change their minds from one election to the next; it is to do with an increasing lack of differentiation between the policies of the parties. Suggesting that improved technology has a solution to democratic ennui is not only simplistic, but it is also dangerous.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Mar '14 - 2:44pm

    I think paul barker and Richard Berry are both missing the point.

    Firstly, the risk of fraud when it comes to online voting is less to do with personation than with the software – the lack of clear physical evidence of how people voted makes the process inherently less transparent and therefore corruptible.

    Then, the fact that you have seen no evidence of fraud in the use of postal voting is hardly proof that it’s hard to commit, is it? It could equally mean that it’s hard to spot; and frankly, if you’re not involved in electoral administration, how would you see any evidence of it?

    Nor is it ever suggested (at least, I don’t think that’s what tonyhill was saying) that there is something intrinsically more worthy about voting requiring “effort” or “travel to a polling station” — what he said, in the first place, was “the only virtually fraud proof method of voting is to go along to a polling station and put a mark on a piece of paper”.

    But finally, the biggest issue for me is not fraud in the sense of a total stranger stealing my vote (though it can happen, of course, and is in some ways made easier by postal voting). Look back at what Tony Greaves said in the first comment: “There is only one safe and secure way in which people can be guaranteed to vote in person and in secret” (emphasis added).

    Postal voting and online voting effectively end the secrecy of the ballot. No one can follow me into the polling booth and watch while I vote because the process is public yet secret. By shifting the action of the vote into the private space of the home, you make the process less secret: because a husband can stand over a wife, a parent over an adult child, a “community leader” or indeed a purely political leader over a presumed supporter and watch whilst they vote, or even have them sign the ballot declaration and then take the ballot paper away to fill in. In many cases they won’t even be aware of doing anything fraudulent because they don’t even know that the person over whom they wield power doesn’t want to vote the way they’ve been told. The secret ballot gives the most powerless in society the chance to have a voice without fear of reprisal; removing the polling booth from the process takes that away from them. That is why tonyhill is right about this: not only is this not “the next step in the advancement of our right to vote” ; it is an actively retrograde step.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Mar '14 - 9:07am

    Well, it’s a matter of priorities, I suppose. You talk about “extending the opportunity” to vote — but as far as I can see, virtually nobody is denied that opportunity now. You really mean “making it easier”. You think that that is worth the loss of secrecy for the most vulnerable in exercising their right to vote. I don’t.

  • David Evans 20th Mar '14 - 3:49pm

    Having worked in Technology Audit for over thirty years, Malcolm is absolutely right. The massive amounts of money banks spend to ensure that they are (almost) cast iron certain that the £50 taken out of an ATM was taken by the card holder is huge. Government wouldn’t spend anything like that (it might waste a similar amount, but that is a comment on how bureaucrats manage government technology projects) and a vote is much more valuable than £50.

    Anyone who ignores the massive uncontrollable risks in going to online voting for deciding our government, really doesn’t understand how computer systems can be and can’t be secured.

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