In recent days, I’ve seen various comments on the turnout at the Douglas South by-election, with some people saying it was “low“.
The returning officer recorded 3,275 votes on Thursday, which is a slight increase on the 3,149 votes recorded at the 2016 general election. Those two elections were fought on the same boundaries and same conditions with each voter having two votes to cast.
At the 2015 by-election (for only one vacancy) there were 1,537 voters, which is a little less than the 1,789 voters recorded last week. So, although turnout remains around 40% (the exact percentage varies depending on the number of people who are registered to vote) the number of voters has actually increased slightly over the last five years. I’m aware of no evidence that any election results would have changed if there were more voters.
Voting is just one (but important!) part of a thriving democracy. Increasing voter turnout would be good, and here in the Isle of Man, it would be good to increase public participation in our democracy. Here are a couple of relatively easy ways to increase voter turnout which should* be relatively uncontroversial.
Allow voting at any polling station
I understand that numerous people were turned away from voting on Thursday, because they mistakenly went to the wrong polling station. In Douglas South, there are some obvious anomalies that local residents reported: Residents of Cooil Drive (and connected streets) need to travel past Anagh Coar Primary School (one polling station) to get to their designated polling station at Vallajeelt. Similarly, the residents of Lheannag Park “face” towards Anagh Coar, but are required to vote over at Vallajeelt.
This is silly. Many nations allow voters to cast vote throughout the nation and throughout the world. Why do we force a voter to go to just one arbitrarily selected location in the first place? The voting system should be designed to serve the voter, not to command the voter. We should allow voters to at least vote anywhere in the constituency and neighbouring constituencies (why does it matter if someone votes in Anagh Coar or Pulrose?) and ideally anywhere in the Isle of Man. I am confident that the government officials have the capability to overcome the administrative challenges that this presents.
The downside is that it might take a few extra minutes to transport the ballot papers to be counted. So be it. Finding out the result within a few minutes of the close of polling is not as important as giving as many people as possible the opportunity to vote – especially in the Isle of Man where a new Government is not constituted for some time anyway.
Hold elections on Saturdays
Obviously, most people have commitments on a weekday. Around two-thirds of adults have work, another big chunk of people are at school, and so on. More people are more likely to be free and flexible to be able to vote if voting is done on a Saturday. It is possible that this might cost a little extra in staffing costs for elections to pay people to work on Saturdays. So be it. Pay a little extra, because the cost is small relative to the benefit of giving as many people as possible the opportunity to vote.
Historically, UK elections are held on Thursdays for various customary reasons. There doesn’t appear to be any clear reason that applies anyway – some people say that electing on a Thursday allows a Government to be sworn in and start work on the following Monday, but even this doesn’t apply to the Isle of Man where our process to choose a Chief Minister and a Ministry are different anyway.
*The problem with all electoral reform is that the incumbents obviously got elected under the current system, so changes are inherently difficult to legislate.