Along with thousands of others up and down the country, I was one of the people verifying and counting the votes as they came in on Thursday night and Friday. I’ve done this a few times before, at both local elections and one general election. The PCC election was unlike any I’ve seen before. Here are a few quick observations from seeing the votes come in.
I was working in the West Yorkshire PCC area. I saw the ballot boxes being opened and helped count the votes. The most votes I saw in one box was 152 and the lowest, 4. 4 votes! In most polling stations there were three staff, working from 7am from 10pm. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them. I heard that one polling station in Leeds District had no voters during the whole day.
Turnout amongst postal voters though was relatively high – about 35-40%. Usually, turnout is in the 65-75% range for postal votes. This means turnout at the polling stations must have been only 5-10%. Overall turnout was 13.76%. This is just incredible.
My final observation related to the number of votes was the staggering number of rejected ballot papers. Generally, at a parliamentary election for example, the number of rejected papers is very low – certainly lower than 0.5% of the total votes cast, but in the West Yorkshire PCC election, there were 8,200 rejected ballot papers, almost 4% of the total cast and just under half the number of votes got by the Lib Dem candidate. As soon as we started to unfold the votes from the ballot box, it was clear something weird was happening. There were a huge number of ballot papers with messages written on them, with the two main themes being – not enough information to make an informed choice; and do not agree with having an election for PCC at all. I have never seen this before and it will be interesting to see if this is repeated in future elections.
So why was turnout so low?
Anecdotally, people were angry about the lack of information they had received about the elections. Candidates at elections are usually allowed one free mailshot to voters. This time the Government decided not to fund that. People didn’t seem to know what Police & Crime Commissioners would do, and they certainly didn’t know who the candidates were or what their platforms were. Holding elections in November, and in isolation from more traditional elections was crazy and guaranteed a low turnout. It’s hard not to conclude that this was deliberate.
Preferential Voting System
The new voting system also seemed to confuse and irritate people. After the referendum for changing the voting system to AV last year, during which voters were subject to strong messages from the Tory Party against AV, and for first past the post, the first election they introduce is not using first past the post, but something that looks remarkably similar to AV. I just don’t understand it. Why are different voting systems OK for other elections, but not for Westminster?
The preferential vote system is easy to understand in that people get that you vote for your favourite and also your second favourite. However, there seemed to be very little information given about what that second preference would ultimately mean. Many people didn’t know that if one candidate didn’t gain 50% of the vote in the first round, then the second preference votes of the eliminated candidates would be reallocated. From the votes I saw, I would say around 15% hadn’t stated a second preference and another 5-10% voted for the same candidate first and second. This were rejected in the second round. In a race with more than 4 candidates, it is very unlikely that one candidate will get more than 50% in the first round, so a second count was nearly always needed. Spare a thought for the poor vote counters! In West Yorkshire, it was clear the Labour candidate had won after the first round – he had 43% of the vote against less than 30% for the second place, but we were required to count second preferences nonetheless. After this second count, the Labour candidate still didn’t have over 50%, but was duly elected. This process took around 300 staff 8 hours to complete, even though there were only 220,000 votes to count. I dread to think how long it would have taken if turnout had been 50% or more. For me, it has to be either first past the post or (even better) proportional representation. These other systems just seem to be a bit of a fudge.
So Who’s to Blame
If we want to have a strong democracy, we need to maximise the number of people engaged in the democratic process, Governments should do everything possible to maximise turnout, and that means holding elections at the right time of year, combining them with other elections and providing the public with sufficient information for them to be able to make informed decisions. The Electoral Commission and Electoral Reform Society are both well placed to provide expert advice on how best to do this, and for whatever reason, they seem to have been ignored by the Government. I understand the Electoral Commission are now going to hold an inquiry into the whole shambles of these elections. The Government, instead of blaming the media, should be hanging their heads in shame over this, and then act quickly to ensure it never happens again.
I final point I want to make is that the union strike ballots over the last two years have generally had low turnouts (in the 20-25% range). This has prompted Government ministers to question their legitimacy and start to suggest strike laws should be made even more tough, so it was interesting to see ministers over the last couple of days saying that the mere fact that people were able to vote for a PCC made the process legitimate and an improvement over the previous system. I’ll be interested to see what these same ministers say the next time union members vote to take industrial action, and whether our media will pick them up on this.