In May’s local elections, 10 areas took part in a trial requiring people to show some form of identification before casting their vote. The downside of this, we now know, was that some 750 people were denied their chance to take part in local democracy. The upside? Well that’s harder to pinpoint, as we know from other trials that instances of people pretending to be someone else at polling stations are virtually non-existent.
Of course, it goes without saying, that those affected only represents a tiny share of the overall electorate, although it is worth noting that they are likely to be disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged groups. The broader point, however, is that when you consider the fact that the vast majority of people chose not to take part in local democracy anyway, the last thing we should be doing is turning people away from polling stations, or creating any additional barriers around voting.
Persistent low turnout at local elections has been called a “serious democratic deficit” by reform campaigners, and much needs to be done to address this. One relatively simple step that could be taken, would be to explore ending many councils’ current model of electing ‘by thirds’. In a media ecosystem where local government struggles to get coverage, dividing what might otherwise be the biggest local democratic event in the calendar into three seems an odd choice. Deciding the composition of councils in a single go, once every four years, and having a single local campaign, could create much more interest in local issues and thus drive up turnout. Moreover, it might also benefit councils themselves, as they would be able to plan in a more long-term manner without the distraction of having elections three out of every four years.
Ending election by thirds might also increase public understanding of how local government works, as councils could then simply reflect the Westminster model. Having one less system to remember would surely be welcome in a country that already asks its citizens to vote under a baffling array of arrangements, from D’Hondt to first-past-the-post, via supplementary voting and single-transferable schemes.
However, simplifying the system and removing any unnecessary barriers is only part of the battle when it comes to increasing turnout in local elections. What really drives people to go to polling stations is a feeling that their vote matters, and a sense of the importance of local government. This is where NLGN’s work on the community paradigm comes in. If councils can shift to a way of working that brings people into the work that they do, that engages them in collaborative processes and deliberative decision making, then people will be able to see clearly what it is that councils do and how it affects their lives. By handing over significant power and resource to communities, people’s knowledge of local issues will increase, and their desire to participate in shaping the makeup of local government will surely follow suit.
Paradoxically then, if councils can move to an understanding of local democracy that goes far beyond polling day, elections themselves might be one of the first things to benefit.