Many Western democracies are dealing with the problem of low voter turnout in elections. The United Kingdom is no different in this regard. Local elections seem to be particularly hard hit by an absence of voters participating in these elections. Political scientists everywhere have been studying the problem of low voter turnout for quite some time, though interviews and surveys with the voting population. Thus far, results of these studies have pointed to a variety of reasons why people may choose to not participate in voting in their local elections. This paper examines a May 2003 local election in the city of York in the United Kingdom, and looks at reasons why voter turnout in this election was relatively low.
In a local election in the city of York in May of 2003, the voter turnout was rather low. While it was not as low as it might have been, the results were nonetheless disappointing for a participatory democracy that relies on the participation of its residents in order to provide legitimacy to the government. Results in this election averaged between thirty and forty percent for the various towns within York. This shows that not even a simple majority of the people bothered to come out to participate in this election. In a democracy, when so few people turn out for an election, it denies legitimacy to the government that is elected, and often results in a government that is not answerable to the people, as that government was only elected by a small percentage of the people. This is a dangerous situation for a democracy to find itself in.
Why then was the voter turnout in this local election so small? There are three main reasons that this paper will examine. The three main reasons that will be examined are:
The United Kingdom's use of the First Past the Post system for local elections.
The age of the voters.
Vicinity of the voters to the polling places.
The First Past the Post system is an electoral system in which the candidate who gets the most votes win, and no other candidate gets a spot in the government. This means that a candidate only has to get a plurality of votes, and not a majority of votes, to win. The consequences of this system are that a person can win the election while only gathering a small percentage of votes (such as twenty or thirty percent). The use of this system also means that only one political party is represented in the local government at any given time, thereby effectively disenfranchising those voters who support the ideals and platforms of the parties which did not win a spot in the government. A First Past the Post system results in a very narrow government, and one that a large portion of voters are likely to feel no sort of connection with.
Most European nations now use a proportional system for national and local elections, making the United Kingdom's use of the First Past the Post system for local elections somewhat of a relic in the modern world. In a proportional electoral system, there are a number of seats in the government that are available, and these seats are awarded proportionally, according to the percentage of votes that each candidate received. For example, if the Conservative Party won twenty percent of the vote, the Labor Party won forty-five percent of the vote, and the Green Party won thirty-five percent of the vote, each of these parties would be awarded a proportional number of seats in the government. In this way, more parties are represented, and more voters feel as if they are represented in the government. This leads to a greater feeling of connection of the voters to the government and to the political process as a whole.
It has been shown that when citizens do not feel a psychological connection to the political process, they are not very likely to vote. On the other hand, citizens who do feel a psychological connection to the political process are much more likely to vote. This information has big implications for local elections. In local communities, it is often the case that an overall political climate develops that naturally favors one party over another. The people of a community may largely support the ideals of one party over another because the positions of that party may particularly benefit that community, or the people living in a community may all be of a similar religion or economic status, and will therefore support one party over another most of the time. However, it is rarely if ever the case that every single eligible voter in a community will support the same party. There will always be those who support other parties for other reasons. In a First Past the Post system, the people who do not support the party that normally wins elections in a community may not be as likely to vote because they feel as if their vote will not matter anyway. These people will also not feel that their interests are being represented by the local government, which will lead to even greater feelings of separation from the political process. If this sort of situation goes on for long enough, it may come to pass that only the most dedicated people in that community will vote in local elections, with everyone else convinced that their vote is not needed, as the outcome is virtually assured. Afterward, even if political opinions begin to change amongst the population of the town, the same political party will continue to be elected again and again, because the majority of the town has given up on voting.
If a proportional representation system were to be implemented in local elections, this might have the positive effect of attracting more voters to the polls, as the race would be more uncertain. No one would know just which parties would win seats and in what numbers. While it may remain easy to guess what party would win the majority of seats in the government, there would still be a reason for everyone to vote, because their vote would have a direct effect in getting at least one member of their party elected into the government. The people would then feel a greater connection to the political process and would feel represented by their government. This would likely lead to an increase in voter turnout that would continue indefinitely, thereby lending much-needed legitimacy to the local government.
The results for the May 2003 election in the city of York show that there were a number of political parties with candidates running for office. These candidates were running in each ward for open councilor seats. Out of the five political parties with candidates running in this election, there were no Conservatives elected, two Greens elected, one Independent elected, fifteen Labors elected, and twenty-nine Liberal-Democratics elected. This clearly shows that the Liberal-Democratic Party has the biggest hold over the voting people in the city of York. The Labor Party seems to have a good level of support as well. However, with the low voter turnout rates in the city of York in this election, it is impossible to tell whether or not more candidates from other parties may have won councilor seats if more people had voted. From the results of this election, it seems as if perhaps more people did not vote because they felt that the Liberal-Democratic candidates were going to win whether they voted or not. With a proportional electoral system, more people may be encouraged to come out and vote because they will feel as if their vote will actually have a bearing on which parties are represented in the government.
Another factor that may have a bearing in the voter turnout outcomes in local elections is age. Age is a factor in voter turnout for a variety of reasons. Those who are younger tend to have less income, less education, and less stability of residence than those who are older. Studies have shown time and time again that those who have less money and less education are less likely to vote overall, as they will feel less represented by the government in the first place (as the policies of the government may have lead to them having less money) and will have less knowledge about the electoral process (through having less education). Those who are mobile in their places of residence will be less likely to vote in local elections because they will not feel enough of a connection to the town that they are in at any given time to participate in a local election, as they know they are likely to move again to a new town in the near future.
In the city of York, the population as of the last census was one hundred eighty-one thousand ninety-four. Of these people, fourteen point five percent of them were…