Who gives a damn anyway? Inertia, electoral fatalism, or just not enthused by the choices on offer

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

This graph shows the votes for Labour and the Conservatives for every General Election since 1935. It also shows the number of votes cast for other parties, and the number of people who did not vote.

What does this tell us?

It shows that for every election both Labour and Conservatives poll somewhere between 8 and 14 million. It shows that in 2010 they polled very similar numbers to what they polled in 1935. Since this is the number of votes (as opposed to vote share), and the electorate has clearly grown since then, where are all the new voters?

Well, the votes for third parties has grown, but this growth has been pretty steady since 1974. The biggest chunk of votes in this category goes to the Liberal Democrats, although nationalist parties also score pretty highly in their respective nations.

What has significantly grown, especially since 1992, is the number of abstentions. The really significant date is 2001, for this is when non-voters outnumbered those who plumped for the governing party.

There were be many reason for abstention, but it broadly divides into two camps: those who could not vote and those who chose not to.

If one looks at the Government party’s vote share as a percentage of all voters (whether cast or not) then one finds the last three Government’s elected with the consent of under 30% of all voters (although ‘consent’ is open to interpretation – abstention can be viewed as consent in some ways). Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide came with just 30.8% of all voters, and you have to go back to 1979 before you find more than a third of the electorate backing the winner.

Interestingly, the largest vote share was for Labour in 1951, an election they actually lost. This is the only occasion since 1935 than any party broke 40% (with 40.3%).

Abstainers accounted for 40.6% of the electorate in 2001, and 34.9% in 2010. Some could argue that those who want a ‘none of the above’ option are already winning.

I think this demonstrates a couple of things. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the choice on offer. This would also include those who feel that the alternatives have no chance of being elected, a kind of electoral fatalism gripping vast swathes of the electorate.

I also believe that voting on Thursdays, in polling booths, with pencils, is way past its sell-by date.

Whilst the two big parties are still acquiring far more supporters than the others, the growth in not voting must be cause for concern. When one factors in the numbers of those not registered (perhaps another 3 million) then it becomes a picture of a country being run by a party selected by fewer than one in four people.

6 Responses to Who gives a damn anyway? Inertia, electoral fatalism, or just not enthused by the choices on offer

  1. I also believe that voting on Thursdays, in polling booths, with pencils, is way past its sell-by date.

    Saturdays may be more convenient for many – and party workers can more easily work to get the vote out. On the other hand there will be overtime costs for counting at the week-end.

    I think on balance I prefer pencils and ballot papers in boxes which we can see being transported, arriving at counts, being opened, validated, counted and bundled into visible piles.

    – Mechanical voting machines to punch holes in ballots papers – bring on the hanging chads that get rejected by counting machines!
    – Electronic voting and do away with ballot papers – using machines brought to you by ConTech suppliers of IT to the present government – or would we buy Chinese technology complete with security “backdoors”?

    With trust in politics so low, let’s not get rid of the only process that has a claim to integrity and transparency!

    Would biros be sufficient improvement?

  2. And yet we register online, often get our news about the candidates online, send and receive e-newsletters, etc. Of course any system we have has to be secure, but the introduction of IER tells you how much trust the Government had in the registration process.

    We bank and shop online too. But, modernisation does not have to involve the internet. The young are being brought up in a world where technology is all-pervasive, where access to information is instantaneous, and where voting (other than political) is often conducted by text or the web.

    For instance, we could use the poll card as a swipe card that could be used at special terminals anywhere in the country. Being able to vote near where you work or shop does not seem so revolutionary. This would eliminate the need for polling stations, and should make the count error-proof. These terminals could be on dedicated phone lines, and not use the internet at all (much like credit card terminals).

    I admit to not having all the answers, but all the data points to a growing non-voting culture, especially amongst the young. We could just ignore it, or we could try to find out what is stopping people taling part in our democracy.

  3. all the data points to a growing non-voting culture, especially amongst the young. We could just ignore it, or we could try to find out what is stopping people taking part in our democracy.

    I agree that there is a growing non-voting culture, but find it very dispiriting that “politicians” think the “answer” lies in replacing pencils at polling stations rather than looking at bigger factors that involve them and their actions.

    The Scottish referendum showed that when people believed that their vote would make a difference – and they cared about that difference, they would vote.

    From your original post: voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the choice on offer. This would also include those who feel that the alternatives have no chance of being elected, a kind of electoral fatalism gripping vast swathes of the electorate.

    “Being modern” particularly for the sake of “being modern” actually has very little to do with it. But with the distrust in politicians, the lottery of an election system, increasingly frantic and under-hand campaigning where it is feared that the lottery system will no longer re-elect you (e.g. Rochester today, Grimsby et al tomorrow?) we are getting very close to the stage where we could get election results that are not trusted (as opposed to not liked) by the electorate. That will then be a very dangerous situation.

    We have some Conservative MPs saying that if we do not like “Brussels Regulations” (agreed by treaty) we should just defy them; Can I, likewise if I do not trust an election result – never mind “like” it, just defy Westminster and ignore all legislation and tax demands originating from there? Can I take the line, that some Americans already take, that all government is oppression and arm myself in order to be able to literally hold the government and its agents at bay?

    I have never ever lived in a constituency where there has been a local result that “I liked” (the fault of the election system), but I basically trust the process (a little bit of fiddling of postal votes and registration being possible exceptions).

    I trust the system because it is auditable – via individual ballot papers if necessary, it is transparent and I know that it is still (just) checkable by vigilant election agents.

    Do I trust the American systems where the electoral roll is manipulated, where the dodgiest mechanical voting machines are sent to the poorest areas so that chads in those areas hang rather than fall and the votes don’t get counted, where electronic voting machines have software (written by republican supporting companies) where you can press “Obama” and see “Romney” light up and where the “vote” cannot be visibly reconstructed at a count attended by representatives of all parties?

    “Modern” balloting systems (text, web, phone etc.) are fine for voting for X-factor acts – because we all know (deep down) that it doesn’t really matter if it is abused, corrupted, manipulated or even just miscounted. So the wrong “act” wins. I can still buy the runner-up’s album (if I really care).

    Our elections are about more than which “act” wins. With the British polling system (as opposed to electoral system) I have to feel bound to accept that result – even when it results in a government that disadvantages me and which I believe takes the country in the wrong direction.

    (If you really want to know about the security of the likes of credit card terminals read the security blogs of Sophos or Brian Krebs. With credit card payments it is a matter of verifying a payment between you and a supplier – what the rest of the world thinks is irrelevant. Voting for Government is about the public believing the claimed summation of millions of our votes.)

  4. Do you think that experimentally internet voting could be trialled alongside the current method? Then it would be down to elector themselves to see which method they preferrred. At least it would give some indication as to whether there was much appetite for it – and it would also indicate whether turnout and engagement was also improved.

  5. Do you think that experimentally internet voting could be trialled alongside the current method?

    Practically, I suspect legislation could be passed to allow “internet voting” alongside postal and proxy voting. But I think we need to be clear why we have postal and proxy voting.

    The idea of “the ballot”, is that the voter turns up at the designated polling station, gives their name, and (provided the apparent gender of the name matches the apparent gender of the voter and the voter can give the correct address) the name is crossed off the roll and a ballot is issued. The voter then marks that ballot and puts it in the box. This is reasonably secure and transparent, double voting is prevented and personification is caught ifthe real voter turns up and attempts to vote.

    But some people are physically incapable of getting to the polling station (principally the sick and infirm), so the franchise based on pure in-person voting is not “universal”. Hence postal and proxy voting. This was then (in living memory) extended to those who just felt that “in-person voting” was “inconvenient”, and “absent” voting became potentially a much bigger proportion of the vote. Then the ability for votes to be harvested or controlled became an issue sufficiently large to potentially effect results. By harvesting I mean where an interest group registers people for postal votes (with or without their knowledge) and then collects the ballot papers, completes them in their own interest and submits them. A postal ballot does not prove who voted. Control occurs where someone (usually a domineering head of household) induces others to vote in a particular manner. A postal ballot does not have the secrecy of the polling booth.

    I personally am instinctively against absent voting unless the issues of harvesting and control can be transparently addressed. (I also like the “collective action” of us all going to “our” polling station as a sort of “democratic act” – but recognise that in these days of individualism such views are probably seen as irredeemably outdated, and a throw-back to days when we were meant to appreciate our collective role in society but now to be discouraged in the name of promoting individualism. It also distinguishes democratic voting from X-factor style mob “liking”.)

    We already do some things by internet such as shopping and banking and it is argued that if it is “good enough for the banks” (!) it should be good enough for our democracy. Voting however is more complex in that with voting the collective summation of our transactions has to be trusted – whilst maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Me paying my council tax by internet banking is effectively two secret linked transactions between me and my bank and between my bank and the council’s bank. The collective summation of these transactions is not of great interest and can only seen months later in terms of approximate numbers of people in council tax default, and it is not transparent.

    My experience of internet voting (for instance in connection with building society AGMs) is of a process that is horribly lax and open to potential manipulation. The level of security is, in many cases, so fake as to be laughable. My “ballot paper” is “secured” by having printed on it a “voter number” (e.g. 12345) and immediately beside it a separate “security number” (e.g. 6789). Since they are on the same piece of paper they might as well just say my number is 123456789 and recognise that that vote is usable by anyone who receives the ballot paper. The Building Society has no idea whether it is the member who completed it or whether they completed it freely. I have no idea whether the results are then manipulated by allowing say the chairman (or a more obscure “system”) to “cast” unused votes.

    If we all had “National ID” cards I guess we could have the equivalent of CVV numbers on the back of them (like credit cards) and when voting we have to enter both the ballot number and our CVV number. That just makes it possible to prove that the person voting had access to the ID card or had previously found out the CVV number.

    Also if we all had iPhones it might be possible to tie a ballot to a specific device – until a hacker learns to break the system or exploit a “back door”.

    But whatever we do with absent votes we cannot prove that the vote was made freely by the person for whom it was intended.

    Perhaps we no longer believe that that matters? With the state of politics now, I believe it matters more than ever. Elections are decided by a small number of (identifiable) swing voters in a few marginal constituencies. To corrupt those few votes under the current system is difficult due to the transparency of the ballot paper system and the secrecy of the polling booth, but it is most easily achieved by interfering with the existing absent voting system. However sudden increases in absent votes will raise questions about what is going on.

    If the whole system was an “absent ballot” it would be very hard to tell whether a pressure group or a political party (or a few on the fringes of such organisations) had interfered with say a couple of hundred votes in a few score of constituencies. (If we look at what goes on in current by-elections, we can see that there are a few “party workers” who are practically rabid in ensuring that “the other side does not win”.) And if we do want to be more paranoid we would not know if a foreign power (or even a big corporation) with an interest in the result had hacked an electronic system and switched just those few votes. (The BBC after all interfered with a ballot to choose the name of a Blue Peter cat!)

    I am reluctant to believe that true voter “engagement” could be influenced significantly by permitting voting by text or internet. Engagement is not “turnout” and has to be more than picking up your mobile after listening to an unedifying “leader’s debate” and texting “Con”, “Lib” or “Lab” (normal call costs apply). Engagement in the Scottish referendum had nothing to do with the mechanics of voting; it had everything to do with the result mattering and an appreciation that every vote might count. There was widespread public debate – not just by suits on the telly, but in streets, in bars, at bus-stops and in homes “split” by the issue. Extending the vote (“by pencil on ballot paper”) to 16 year-olds meant it was possible for them to get effectively involved and their energy may have got others more engaged. Many of the Scottish votes were deeply considered and even where some may have been mistaken on specific facts they arose from true engagement, not from a disengaged throw-away X-factor style instant poll.

    (It might be an interesting discussion point to consider whether improved turnout by the completely disengaged leads to better results or more legitimate results – not necessarily the same thing. I would let improved turnout follow improved engagement.)

  6. It does strike me that your whole argument is predicated on your belief that voting at a polling station is secure. It is not difficult to work out who is unlikely to vote and then impersonate them at a polling station. Often the checks amount to only a confirmation of name and address.

    To be honest, I am less concerned about the introduction of technology than I am by things such as PR, votes@16, Lords reform, etc. However, I think a serious look at the mechanics of voting is warranted, in my opinion.

    Of course, one could argue that whatever the level of turnout only those who take an interest actually vote – a good riposte to the idea of compulsory voting.

    Incidentally I have had a postal vote for about a quarter of a century. I initially requested it because I was working away and therefore geniunely absent. Nowadays it is for convenience – and I see nothing wrong with making democratic participation convenient. I am untroubled by the idea of all-postal elections – and I would be interested in cost comparisons (yes, I know that democracy should not be bounded by cost). The only real problem with an all-postal election is what it does to campaigning. Unless we stretch the timetable we will be left with a much smaller window in which to make final contact with voters – and the knock-up is also radically changed too.

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