Those of us involved with local elections have become somewhat inured to low turnout over the years. My election earlier this year saw only 24.4% of my ward vote; there were two wards in Southend-on-Sea who managed an even worse level of engagement. I recall by-elections where turnout was on or around 16%. It does question the legitimacy of the winners, although they cannot do much more than actually win.
Most of us involved in politics worry about turnout. Voter engagement cuts to the core of how effective our democracy is seen to be. Whilst there may be many reasons for not voting the net result is a weakening of the concept of society. The really worrying thing is that if we factor in the unregistered even our General Elections may witness less than half actually bothering to take part.
Since this is a discussion across the political spectrum I find it somewhat shocking that the PCC elections are run in such a way as to give the appearance of actively seeking a low turnout. Wary of hyperbole I still cannot find a better adjective to describe the November 15th elections than ‘shambles’. Irrespective of who wins where, those who are running this have not covered themselves in glory.
My first grievance is the choice of date. As an activist I am fully aware of what campaigning in the autumn is like. Contacting voters and getting a message out is hampered by dark evenings and poor weather.
It is no coincidence that there is a corollary between weather and turnout – and hence why most of our elections are now fought in May. To separate this election from the locals may have some merit as regards the distinctiveness argument (not one I subscribe to) but this will be proven to be an appalling decision if turnout is as low as predicted (18% by the ERS).
Separating the election from the locals has also made this a costly exercise. I do not know what the final bill will be for the tax-payer, but having elections on their own creates avoidable costs as polling stations and staff have to be made available as if this was a General Election. Add in poll cards, advertising, and the count and one wonders if the person who made this decision is at all aware of how tight public money is at the moment. (I have read that £350,000 of ballot papers have already gone to the shredder because the Government got the law wrong.)
There has also been a knock-on effect on the Register of Electors, as the annual publication is brought forward in an attempt to make it as accurate as possible for these elections.
Having chosen to lavish money on autumn elections, the penny-pinching decision not to have a freepost delivery will leave many, if not most, voters largely ignorant about their candidates. These are not small constituencies, and personal contact with all but a minute percentage is impossible. Cost will be the reason – but why hold an election if you are not going to properly support it? I have fought two General Elections, on each occasion I took advantage of the freepost delivery of leaflets. I had a mere 70000 voters to contact, whereas PCC constituencies often exceed the million mark.
This is set to be a record breaker. Setting aside the arguments about whether we should be having these elections (and some voters will be abstaining because they object to them), many will not vote either through ignorance about the candidates, ignorance about the elections themselves, or because the time of year is no encouragement. This is set to be a record breaker, and for the wrong reason. It is almost certain that turnout have a new nadir. Those of us who cherish democracy will have cause for concern.
I am also puzzled about the decision not to have an election for the biggest police authority – London. It does look like a political decision. What is also worrying is that the bar for candidature is set higher than for any other election. No-one with anything resembling a criminal record can stand, somewhat in defiance of normal rules surrounding spent convictions. Whilst no-one wants criminals running for these jobs surely a life ban is unreasonable. These rules do not apply for any other elected position.
I welcome the use of the Supplementary Vote for these elections, but this does beg two questions. First is why? Is the likely transfer of minor party support seen as a boost for certain candidates – in other words, is this another political decision? Second, is this a step towards fairer electoral systems for councillors?
To cap it all, if my description of these elections is anywhere near accurate what will this do to the credibility of our new Police and Crime Commissioners?