Reversing voter apathy

Published November 3rd 2006 in The Herald

Is it better to vote blind than not to vote at all? Electoral apathy harms mature democracies the world over. Any initiative that bucks the trend by legitimate means must be good. Turning up at the polls is one thing. How to exercise the vote has become more problematic. It used to be straightforward: mark an X against the name of the candidate of choice in traditional first-past-the-post polling. Winner (and his or her party) takes all. Fortunately, this voting model no longer enjoys a monopoly in modern Scotland. It remains a component in the Scottish parliamentary elections for voting in MSPs, along with the additional-member model for list candidates. This form of PR, while welcome, is limited as the electorate votes for a party and the vote goes to the candidate at or near the top of the list, as selected by the party. As of next May's Holyrood elections, the purest form of PR, the single transferable vote (STV) will be used for council elections, which take place on the same day.

Although there is an issue about the relationship between councillor and ward being severed, STV has the potential to effect real change on the local government landscape. Voters express their choice by voting for as many candidates as is feasible in a ward, as long as they are ranked by number in order of preference. Making each vote count should be good for representative democracy and, in theory, result in turnout being boosted. But it cannot be taken for granted that giving voters more power to their elbow will reverse apathy. Indeed, as The Herald reveals today, creating a fourth voting system on Scotland's big polling day could be counterproductive. According to the results of an Ipsos/ Mori poll, nearly four in every five voters do not even know change is afoot, let alone what it involves.

This is a cause for concern, given that the elections are only some six months away. What hope can there be of Scotland enjoying a truly representative, accountable and dynamic system of local government when the vehicle for delivering it is alien to most voters? The findings are in line with a recent Electoral Commission report which showed that more than 75% of people were unsure about next May's voting systems and were confused when told about the two forms of PR.

Clearly, much work still needs to be done to increase public understanding of voting procedures. Without knowledge, there will not be voting power and turnout will not exceed the disappointing 2003 level of 49%. There is, however, hope in the Ipsos/Mori poll. After an apparent crash course in STV, many respondents showed they could be sophisticated by splitting their preferences across different parties rather than sticking with the one they usually supported. Empowering a small group is one thing. But crash courses are not ideal preparation for bringing politics back to life. Time is running out to put the public in the know. The education process should begin now, before it is too late.