Elections Roundup

The dust has settled a little on the European and local election results. So the time seems right to provide a bit more analysis on the various trends and issues that arise.

Turnout

Across Europe turnout was down significantly. This was partly due to incredibly low turnout in the accession countries. At first blush this is a surprise – surely the new EU members would be proudly trooping down to their polling stations? Actually, no. The deputy foreign minister of Poland was interviewed by David Dimbelby on the BBC's Euro election night coverage. He summarised the issue rather well… In essence he said that having had referendums on EU membership last year many felt like this issue had been 'done' for the time being. There was little evidence of EU activity on which to base another vote. This was especially so when you think that very few had any idea about what the European Parliament does now and might do for them (I might add, not many anywhere in the EU know much about the parliament!). Several of the new member countries, including Poland, don't have a strong tradition of voting in any elections. So roll all those issues together and you get low turnout.

But the UK bucked the trend, turnout was up here, even in regions where all-postal ballots were not being piloted. We went from 24% to 38.2%, an impressive boost

How could this be in a country famous for its ambivalence to Europe? Anger over the war in Iraq played a part, as did increasing coverage of European issues thanks to wrangles over the constitution and UKIP's rise to prominence by snagging media-friendly Kilroy as a candidate. Technical issues helped too, combining several ballots is a well known ploy for boosting turnout. Having the London elections and council elections at the same time helped increase media coverage and motivation for voters to turn out. Additionally the more proportional d'Hondt voting system for European elections encourages participation as people know that voting for 'the other parties' does have an affect.

Still we could obviously do better, any election turnout below 50% is depressing. But before we can see serious turnout gains the European Parliament and the semi-proportional voting system we use to elect MEPs both need radical reform. How far the new MEPs can push this agenda will be interesting to watch.

Spoilt & Postal Ballots

I've already explored the high number of spoilt ballots recorded in the London elections. Just a small addition to the London story, eGov monitor Weekly reports that the electronic counting used in London was deemed a complete success – counting all the ballots for three elections was completed in one day. No mention has been made of what role the e-counting had in the high number of spoilt ballots reported. I can't find a link to the report on the eGov monitor site so here's the report copied from their email newsletter:

Use of electronic counting in London's combined local, European and mayoral elections has been deemed a success with no reported technical issues, election officials said today.

Counting of ballot papers started on Friday morning and was completed by 8pm the same day. The procedure which would have normally taken several days had the count been conducted manually. It was the second time that e-counting technology had been used in London elections, and also the only implementation to take place in the UK during last week's elections.

A spokesperson for London Elects, which managed the planning of the elections, indicated that the outcome of the trials had been more than satisfactory. “The technology worked excellently and we were able to count almost six million ballot papers under three different electoral systems within hours, rather than days if they were counted manually”, a spokesperson told eGov monitor Weekly this morning. “This reflects the planning we have done, and the hard work put into these elections by DRS, who supplied the technology, and particularly the London boroughs.”

This positive outcome is contradicted by a Guardian report which claims that problems were experienced with the e-counting in London. In particular the report claims that ballots were rejected when a crucial bar code was torn. It isn't made clear if ballots rejected in this manner were subsequently hand counted.

(More background info on the e-counting in London and the London Elects micro-site on how they counted the ballots)

For the European elections spoilt ballots were only a major issue in areas piloting the postal ballots. For example, South Shields (a pilot area) had 4,145 spoilt ballots, more than the number spoilt across all Scotland! Altogether over 85,000 votes were discarded in the four pilot areas. Barbara O'Toole, an incumbent Labour MEP, lost her seat to LibDems by 11,500 votes. Observers are speculating that she may have lost her seat to the spoilt ballots. It's impossible to say for sure but, as with London, the results are undoubtedly different from what voters intended.

On the matter of fraud in the postal pilots returning officers and police officers have been wheeled out to state that:

the scale of fraud and malpractice is broadly similar to previous years

But this isn't entirely convincing. How can we be sure that fraud is higher or lower? Surely the whole problem with all-postal ballots is that it is so easy to perpetrate fraud undetectably. As the Electoral Commission has stated in reviews of previous pilots, there are not sufficient measures in place to detect fraud (see pp8 of my report Uncertain Elections for more on this [PDF]).

The key measure ostensibly designed to discourage fraud in postal ballots is the witness statement. This, for those haven't seen one, is a little form where the voter signs to say that they cast their vote and nobody else did. They then get a witness (which can be anybody) to sign the form and provide their address. The forms are complicated, completely unverifiable and reinforce the feeling that postal ballots aren't anonymous.

Indeed it would seem that a key reason for the massive numbers of spoilt ballots in the pilot areas was the witness statement. [The Independent reports] that up to 60,000 ballots were declared invalid due to the witness statement, often because they weren't included with the ballot when posted back to the returning offcers.

An excellent Guardian leader on the postal ballots correctly argues that not only did turnout rise in areas without the pilots, but forcing the pilots into more areas than recommended had backfired. A key reason for people not voting is a lack of faith in politicians and the political system. Not only did the postal pilots undermine faith in the procedural strength of our electoral system, but by forcing them in areas which the Electoral Commission felt weren't ready the politicians reinforced the lack of trust. It was clear that John Prescott thought boosting turnout in northern regions would help prop-up the notorious stay-at-home Labour vote. As the Guardian says:

By forcing through compulsory postal voting for apparently self-interested reasons, when the systems were not in place to support it, the government simultaneously undermined both its own claim on the voters' trust, and the voters' faith in the voting system. What someone once called a double-whammy.

Whilst the FT and the Mirror were quite positive on the postal ballots, The Indepedent's leader summed up the matter rather well, if a bit strongly:

“The scheme was cynically conceived and incompetently executed. By concentrating the experiment in the north of the country, Labour was blatantly trying to get its core vote out … Whatever benefit it may have had in boosting turnout, these gains will only come at considerable cost to the integrity of the system.”

Winners & Losers

It goes without saying that UKIP have gained considerable coverage from their meteoric rise. However others also did well… the LibDems had a decent result, nudging their vote share upwards, though losing control of several big councils must have stung.

My party, the Green Party did rather well too. In the local elections we retained all our seats except our only one in Wales. Additionally we added 9 new council seats to those we held. In the European elections we held on to our two MEPs, Jean Lambert in London and Caroline Lucas in the South East region. This is more of a coup then it might at first seem. Due to the recent EU enlargement the number of seats in both these regions had been reduced by one. So we had to win even more votes just to hold on to what we had. This was particularly so with Caroline who last time only scraped in by around 250 votes! This year she had a 'majority' of around 18,000 votes.

Overall the Green Party pushed their vote share upwards. One real unreported success was in Brighton & Hove where the Green vote was, by a whisker, the second largest, pushing Labour into third place. The results:

Brighton & Hove
Elections for European Parliament 2004

Conservative 15,844
Green 12,106
Labour 12,072
UKIP 7,936
LibDem 7,899
Seniors 1,353
BNP 1,055
Respect 996
English Democrats 471
C.P.Alliance 274
Independent 172
Rejected votes 114

(Source: Brighton & Hove Green Party)

This is a great result which confirms that Brighton is the city most likely to see a Green MP elected in the next general election. Strangely, however, the local paper (The Evening Argus) has chosen not to report on this achievement. The headline on the day following the Euro results was “Dog Bites Child” – not a whisper about the Euro results.

A few psephological notes: The Brighton & Hove breakdown is for 3 Westminster constituencies so the votes will be split non-uniformly between each seat during a general election. Additionally the less proportional voting system used for Westminster will natural have an impact, cutting into many of the smaller parties who showed up here. Nevertheless having Greens come second and UKIP come fourth pushing LibDems into 5th place is a story. Respect also have shown themselves to be a non-story with a poor showing locally and nationally.

Long term I can't see UKIP becoming a power in Westminster, but they will probably hold on to their MEPs for some time. The trouble is that with the current European Parliament it's not hard to find people angry about extravagant costs, distant bureaucrats and so on. What the rising vote of parties like UKIP and the BNP shows is that, as LibDem MP Richard Allen says on his blog, the chances of getting proportional representation in Westminster are hovering somewhere around zero.