POLITICAL MS: Voting Season

Dr Elizabeth Monaghan writes on the increase in the number of UK elections

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There’s SS and AW but right now we’re in the middle of VS (voting season): a jamboree of campaigning and polling; of debating and argumentation; of multiple and contradictory claims to “the facts”.

This voting season is notable for being the biggest and busiest in quite a while.

The elections on 5th May were described as the most extensive test of public opinion before the next general election in 2020. Depending upon where they live in the UK, voters may have been electing a combination of a mayor (Bristol, Liverpool and London), devolved assembly or parliament members (London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), local councillors (124 English councils), and a police and crime commissioner (in 40 police force areas in England and Wales).

These recent elections, alongside the general election (2015) and European Parliament election (2014) mean that there are now six kinds of elections in the UK: double what there would have been twenty years ago. There are also six different electoral systems in use across these contests with the result that voters can vote in two different elections on the same day but which use wildly different systems. These range from the simple and familiar first-past-the-post to the more proportional and novel, for British voters at least additional member system. We might compare these to the ill-fated AV (Alternative Vote), the subject of a failed referendum in 2011 but which is a condensed version – the instant run-off – of the system used by the X-factor or Big Brother. In-depth discussions of electoral system become mainstream topics of conversation, escaping the lecture halls, during voting season.

Before the dust settles on the last elections in less than five weeks voters across the country will be asked again for their view, this time on UK membership of their EU. The choice in the voting booth is simpler than for many of May’s elections – referendums being a choice between two binary options: in this case remain or leave. The simple question doesn’t, however, make arriving at a choice easy and either way the outcome will affect life in the UK for decades.

Voting season has its rituals. Going to vote is an evocative, low-tech – pencils on a string – experience, and for many the only time they find themselves in a primary school, although an unusually quiet one, with all their laminated displays and unfeasibly small chairs.

But can there be too much of a good thing? The frequency and number of contests, the information overload, the magnitude of what’s at stake: Are people being asked for too much? Certainly in the US, where elections and referendums are even more frequent, and accompanied by initiatives, recall elections and primaries, the danger of ‘voter fatigue’, where people are sick and tired of being called to vote so often that they abstain or engage in protest voting, is real.

For now though let’s enjoy the season: the aftermath could be messy.


 

Dr. Elizabeth Monaghan is a lecturer in European Politics at the University of Hull, UK and an associate lecturer of The Hansard Society

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