Early voting: why did we bother spending years (and lots of money) on piloting it?

For several years, the idea of letting people vote in person ahead of polling day (e.g. at the Town Hall or in a local shopping centre) was tested out in a range of different British elections. Lots of time and money went on the tests, all of which came up with the same answer: it makes almost no difference to turnout, and the money that it takes up could have gone on other measures which would have been just as good, if not better, at raising turnout (e.g. general publicity campaigns reminding pepole to vote).

The pilots themselves went on long past the point at which they were revealing anything useful. Indeed, I’ve sat in quite a few meeting with civil servants of the years where I asked questions along the lines of, “What sort of result would this year’s pilots have to show for you to decide to drop the idea?”

Eventually, the idea of testing this was dropped and the idea of introducing early voting as a permanent feature of our elections quietly mothballed.

So far, so good – more pilots were run than necessary in my view, but the basic idea, “here’s an idea, let’s test it and then make a decision based on the evidence” was a good one.

Unfortunately, now enter stage left Labour MP Linda Riordan, who writes on Labour List:

The Government has introduced some welcome measures in this area. However, there is so much more that could be done.

… and then goes on to praise the idea of early voting, based on the US Presidential election.

Well, ok – but what about the evidence that we’ve gathered here in the UK? Doesn’t get a mention in her piece. She talks about the US, but ignores completely the UK trials and their outcome. And she also seems to have fallen for the myth that turnout soared in the US this time, which of course it didn’t.

But I do wonder why the Government, Electoral Commission, local councils and political parties spent lots of money, time and effort on tests of early voting, when none of that seems to matter at all to Linda Riordan?

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  • Richard Huzzey 12th Feb '09 - 2:43pm

    My impression is that early voting is used more in the US because queues at polling stations on election day can grow so much longer there. I’ve never seen huge queues in a British local or general election — is that typical or have by-elections and Oxfordshire polls been unusually quiet?

  • It may not increase overall turnout but there would be other good reasons to introduce it.

    We should go for widespread early voting as an replacement for postal voting as it is much easier to ensure ballot integrity.

  • Anon above was me

    Mat – I did various bits of work on this when I was at ALDC. The biggest thing Riordan gets wrong is over the rise in turnout in the US. She also implies UK turnout continues to fall (05 was a rise and the recent by-elections suggest this is continuing) and talks of the positive aspects such as postal voting despite the criticisms.

  • Early Voting isn’t the only subject of pointless pilots.

    In Crewe & Nantwich several years ago we piloted internet voting in two polling districts (one leafy rural/ dormitory village; the other gritty urban). It went down quite well and SEEMS to have increased turnout a little. But, of course, a one-off proves nothing [the increase may simply be the result of novelty value and the extra publicity generated]. The acid test would be to continue the pilot, and see whether the effect was maintained.

    But no, off they went on some other “big new idea” and so no worthwhile evidence was gathered.

    Waste of time and money.

  • Well, Labour knows that the polls tend to move slightly to the Lib Dems during the last 2 weeks of a campaign (due to fair coverage laws), so maybe they want people to vote early – Labour – before they change their mind?

  • Talk of Internet-based voting from domestic PCs gives me the willies, speaking as a geek.

    We’ve seen that electronic voting cannot be trusted with custom-built machines in special physical enclosures with several safeguards, so expecting Joe Public’s virus-ridden Windows box to provide an anonymous and secure vote is nigh-on impossible.

    Hell, even electronic counting of hand-cast ballots can be problematic – see http://www.openrightsgroup.org/2008/07/02/org-verdict-on-london-elections-insufficient-evidence-to-declare-confidence-in-results/ for details.

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