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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fantastic letter in today's Times

"Sir, A low turnout is the sign of a democracy in good health. The person who decides not to vote - for whatever reason - is acknowledging that he or she is not qualified to express an opinion, or is ambivalent. That is entirely responsible and is to be encouraged, not criticised. It leaves the election to be determined by those who are much more likely to have weighed the issues and reached a reasoned conclusion. Matthew McCloy, Swerford, Oxon."

This letter, which might or might not have been intended (at least in part) ironically, says what a naughty part of me sometimes cannot help thinking. If someone is so ill-informed about the issues as to think that voting does not matter, then why should I want that person to vote? If such a person has no idea what the different parties' policies are, has no idea who the candidates are and has no understanding of what a councillor, mayor, etc, actually does, then how is democracy served by that person voting?

This is, of course, not a serious argument. A healthy democracy is presumably one in which more people vote, as any person is, obviously, capable of reaching a decision about politics. Research shows that those who do not vote are disproportionately poor, disproportionately lacking in formal qualifications and disproportionately lacking in English language skills - it is an issue of social exclusion. Also, there is sadly no great mass of non-voters who abstain because they have reached a sophisticated decision to reject the current political system, or because they have decided that the main parties are all too similar, etc. The people who most often don't vote are the same people who don't read newspapers, don't listen to public health advice and don't do all manner of other things that people like me would like them to do.

The one time a higher turnout was genuinely problematic for me was in London's 2010 local council elections. They were held on the same day as the General Election. The General Election had a much higher turnout than local elections ever do, so far more people voted in the local elections than had voted in London's previous local council elections, in 2006.

In 2006, the only voters in the local elections were that minority of voters who read the local paper, know who their councillors are, etc. Such voters knew, for example, that Fred Blogs was a great local councillor despite being from the wrong party, and so put aside their normal party preferences to re-elect Fred as their local councillor in 2006.

In 2010, thousands of voters (twice the usual number) arrived at the polling station to vote at the General Election, and - to their great surprise - were handed a mysterious second ballot paper and told that it was for the local council elections. Never having heard of Fred or any of the other candidates, they automatically voted in the local election for whichever party they always vote for at a General Election, and so Fred lost his seat on the council.

This happened across London to councillors of all parties; when the same seats are up for election again in 2014 and it does not this time coincide with a General Election, Fred will win his seat back on councils across London. There is something faintly daft, and more than faintly depressing, about a situation in which a higher turnout led not to a higher level of informed participation, but to a distortion of the 2010 results in comparison to the 2006 results. Should General Election voters only have been handed a local elections ballot paper if they had specifically asked for one? I guess not, realistically. But it's a tempting thought.

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