“An Englishman, even if he is alone”, said George Mikes, “forms an orderly queue of one.” Some of Thursday night’s queues to vote appear to have been a bit less than orderly. Of all the claims made about the problems at polling stations, the most ludicrous is that poor electoral administration prevented a higher turnout.
Obviously this is literally true, but to secure a rise of just one percentage point in turnout requires more than 400,000 extra voters. Nothing in the reports so far indicates that we are talking about that many people; I’ll be surprised if the numbers proved to have been ‘denied’ their vote even hit 4,000, if that. That would represent a rise of 0.01% in the turnout.
The second bizarre claim is that the problems were caused by a ‘surge’ in turnout. There was no surge. Estimates of turnout put it at about 65%, just four percentage points up on what it had been in 2005. This is a lower turnout than in the 75 years at every election between 1922 and 1997.
We managed then without turning people away; competent electoral administrators should have been able to manage yesterday. The problems seen are on Thursday are much more to do with localised incompetence -- and penny pinching by councils – than any great surge in voting.
No doubt the Electoral Commission will get it in the neck for this. If there’s a national commission dealing with elections, then it’s inevitable that that is where the finger will point. Yet although the Commission provides oversight, much of the delivery of elections is decentralised, run by local councils – and it’s here that the problems appear to have been.
Here’s the interesting thing: one of the big ideas in British politics is that of localism, decentralisation, the idea that the centre shouldn’t always run things. That’s exactly how the UK runs its elections. And whilst most councils run elections very well, others don’t. What you saw on Thursday was localism in action, for good or ill.
UPDATE: A comment below makes the point that the population has grown in recent years. True, and in total more people voted on Thursday than in elections up until the 1970s. But at the same time, we now have much more widely available postal voting – 15% voted by post during the last election, most people think the figure will be higher this time – and so the footfall in polling stations on the day will still be less now than in almost all post-war elections. (Without knowing the precise number of postal votes, it’s difficult to say, but even if the rate stays the same as in 2005, I estimate you have to go back to 1945 before you find fewer people passing through polling stations on the day). Also, polling stations now stay open for longer (it used to be until 9pm, now it’s 10pm), so there’s even less excuse.
More importantly, I wasn’t arguing that this was unimportant, and that people shouldn’t be annoyed. Merely that, when blame is being apportioned, it should go where it is deserved – those councils that cocked-up – and not where it doesn’t. This is localised incompetence, and we should deal with it on that basis.
Professor Philip Cowley