Making sure you can vote at the EU Referendum

This is my first post in a while. The referendum campaign has been dismal on both sides, and you could be forgiven for being totally put off politics for life. I was surprised to learn recently that pollsters are predicting a turnout lower than last year’s General Election, which is rather depressing to me as there’s much more at stake now than last year. Everyone should vote on the 23rd June, whichever side you are on. Personally, I applied for a postal vote a long time ago, so cast my vote last week. If you didn’t do that though, here are some key dates to make sure you are able to cast your vote.

7th June @ Midnight

This is the deadline to register to vote. You should already be on the electoral roll, but if not, you need to register now. It’s pretty easy and can be done online at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. You are eligible to vote in the referendum if you are a UK, commonwealth, or Irish citizen living in the UK, or a UK citizen living overseas, but registered at a UK address within the last 15 years. If you are a student living at a university address, you may be back at home on 23rd June, so make sure you are also registered at your parent’s address if you return there for any lenth of time.

8th June @ 5pm

If you can’t get to your polling station on 23rd June for any reason (or are just lazy), you have until this date and time to apply for a postal vote. While you can register to vote online, to get a postal vote, you actually need to fill in a paper form. That’s because a copy of your signature is required to verify your vote when you return it in the post. You can download a postal vote application form from here. Once completed, you can scan and email your form directly to your  local council. Find their email address here. Bear in mind though that if you apply for a postal vote now, you probably won’t receive it until around a week before the referendum day, so if you are going on holiday before then, you may need to apply for a proxy vote. Which brings us to…

15th June @ 5pm

Again, if you can’t get to the polling station on the 23rd and a postal vote isn’t suitable for you, or you miss the 8th June deadline, the 15th is the deadline to apply for a proxy vote. A proxy vote is where you appoint a friend or family member to vote on your behalf. Again, like with a postal vote, you need t0 fill in  paper form, and you can get one from here. The person you appoint as proxy will need to go along to your polling station and then vote as normal for you.

23rd June @ 5pm

If, after 5pm on the 15th June, you have a medical emergency, or a suddenly called away for work reasons which would cause you to miss the poll on 23rd June, you can apply for an emergency proxy vote. This is much like a normal proxy vote, but you have to jump through a couple more hoops to get one. More information on that is here.

Some other key pieces of info

If you applied for a postal vote, but didn’t receive it or you lost it, you can get a replacement from 17th June until 5pm on polling day. You normally have to go down to your local council with ID to get one though. If you forget to post it back, you can hand it in at any polling station until polls close at 10pm. Voting starts at 7am on 23rd (unless you live in Barnet, then who knows what time it will be 🙂 )

That’s about it, so now you have no excuses for not voting. If you are not yet registered, get your skates on because you only have 2 more days to sort it out.

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Some voter registration and voting FAQs

Here’s some answers to questions people might have about voting in the GE.

When is the deadline to register?

It’s tomorrow (20th April) so get your skates on! After midnight on Monday, it’s too late.

How can I register?

You’ve left it late, so have two realistic options:

1) Online. Go to www.gov.uk/registertovote. Takes about 5 mins.

2) Call you local council and ask to register to vote. Have you NI number handy. You can find their number by entering your postcode via this link.

I’m on holiday/working away on election day. What can I do?

Again two options:

1) Apply for a postal vote. The deadline is Tuesday 21st. You can get a form from here. It’s getting close to the deadline now, but your local electoral services dept will likely accept scanned copies if you haven’t left enough time to post it.

2) Missed the postal vote deadline? You can still apply for a proxy vote until 28th April. This is where you nominate someone else to vote on your behalf. You can find a proxy vote form here.

I’ve just been called away for work reasons after the proxy vote deadline has passed. What can I do?

You may be able to apply for an “emergency proxy” up until 5pm on polling day. Get a form from here.

I haven’t received my poll card. Does this mean I can’t vote?

Not necessarily. Sometimes whoever is delivering them (usually Royal Mail) cocks up. Check if you’re registered with your local council. You don’t need your poll card to vote. If you are registered, just give your name and address at the polling station to receive you ballot papers.

If you have recently moved and forgot to register, you might still be registered at your old address and could still vote. Again, check with your local council.

When I go to vote there’s usually someone standing outside asking for the number on my polling card. Do I have to give it to them?

If they are wearing a rosette, they’re probably from a political party and are trying to get an idea of who has voted. If you don’t want to tell them your number, tell them (politely) to piss off. You are under no obligation to do so.

I am interested in seeing the results being announced in my local area. Can I go and watch?

Election counts are not open to the public. It is set down in law who can attend, but there are a couple of ways you could get in:

1) Get a job counting the votes. Even at this late stage, your council may be looking for casual staff. Give them a ring to find out. The benefit of this option is that you get paid!

2) Volunteer to act as a counting agent for a political party. For this you definitely will not be paid however!

Any other questions, ask in the comments below and I’ll see if I can find the answer.

Why don’t more people vote?

In the run-up to and aftermath of last week’s elections, all the talk was about the rise of UKIP as a new force in British politics. UKIP managed to go from 8 county council seats to 147 on a projected national share of the vote of 23%. There’s been a lot of ruminating in the last few days about why so many people voted UKIP. Was it because of immigration, the EU, or just a reflection of dissatisfaction on the economy? Was it an anti-politics vote? Are people just fed up of the main parties?

All of these are interesting questions, but there’s something that’s less focus placed on it, although to me it is the elephant in the room – turnout. The BBC has estimated the average turnout at last week’s elections to be 31%, down from 41% in 2009, the last time these elections were fought. So while in wards where UKIP stood candidates, 25% of those voting, voted for UKIP, when all eligible voters are taken into account, this means only around 8% of people who could have voted, actually voted UKIP. The proportions for the other main parties will be similar.

The Conservatives have taken UKIP’s success as a sign they need to start talking tougher on immigration and Europe as that’s what they think the message from voters has been, but what about the 69% (plus the (around) 10% who aren’t even registered to vote) who didn’t vote at all? Even in the last general election, turnout only just touched 65%, down from over 80% in the early 50s, and at last November, a paltry 15% of people bothered to cast a vote. The main parties seem a bit complacent about what to me is becoming a democratic crisis, and are instead focussing on appealing to a smaller and smaller number of people. But why are people opting out of voting at elections in such great numbers?

The following table (click on it to enlarge) is comprised of data taken from the website of the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). I’ve compiled data on turnout and electoral systems from each of the current OECD countries. The turnout is for each country’s last Parliamentary election, while the right hand column gives the peak turnout since the end of WWII.

Voter Turnout

A few things jump out on looking at the table. Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, countries which have compulsory voting have higher turnouts in general, although a few countries (like Denmark and Iceland) manage to achieve high turnouts without voting being compulsory.

Secondly, with the exception of Australia, all of the top 15 countries in the table have some sort of proportional voting system, mainly the list system. It was interesting that during the referendum campaign for AV, the no campaign made much of the fact that AV is used hardly anywhere else, but of the OECD countries, only three use our current system of First Past the Post, and of those three, the UK had the highest turnout at the last Parliamentary elections, but that was only the 19th highest in the OECD. This makes the Lib Dems decision to settle for a referendum on AV rather than PR all the more baffling.

Thirdly, the data on peak turnout is quite interesting. In relatively young democracies (like the former communist states), turnout tends to peak at the first democratic election, after which it falls off quite quickly. In more mature democracies though, peak turnout seems to have been in the period between the end of WWII and the 1970s, dropping off significantly since then. This is true of the UK, US, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and so on. Nordic countries, by comparison have managed to maintain high turnouts since WWII without much of a drop-off. So why might this be?

Here’s my theory (feel free to disagree). Since the late 1970s we have been living in the neoliberal period, during which time, the agenda known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ has been pushed – privatisation, liberalisation of trade and financial/capital markets etc. Initially, there were distinct political parties, which fought over these big issues, but as time went on, all main parties came to accept these ideas to such an extent that they are now largely indistinguishable on the main issues. This has been true of the UK since about 1992. These policies are detrimental to the welfare of a significant proportion of the population, so under a first past the post system, where the main parties look identical, what’s the point in voting? At least when people vote for an X Factor contestant, they can see that their vote has counted and can feel as though they have influenced something (no matter how trivial).

So what can be done? Working on the assumption that the more people voting the better, from the data above, we can see that in general, the countries with the highest turnouts use a proportional system for voting. If people feel like their vote counts they seem to be more inclined to vote. Compulsory voting also seems to ensure high turnouts. The Lib Dems blew a golden chance to address our democratic deficit in 2011. They blew it by plumping for AV – when they could surely have got a more proportional system on the ballot – and perhaps ensured the downward slide in turnout becomes terminal.

Politicians need to react to this if they are to remain committed to democracy. PR and compulsory voting will go most of the way to turning things around, and will also promote differentiation of political parties, which desperately needs to happen. The concept of a ‘party of protest’ should not exist. UKIP should have to spell out their policies like all parties and attract voters on their merits, rather than purely because they are not a ‘mainstream’ party. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories should be made to diverge so that, at the very least, the difference between them goes beyond the colour of their rosettes.

PCC Elections – A How-to Guide in how not to run an Election

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.