|British polling booths haven't changed much in over a century|
Why are British Voters in the dark about this week’s elections? by Joe Mitchell
Pity the local elections, overshadowed again. Last year it was the EU referendum, this year it’s a general election. Voters will make the short walk to a polling station on Thursday more out of duty than of passion. Because information is so sparse on these elections, voters will cast their ballots without truly knowing what or who they are voting for. The UK will miss yet another opportunity to improve our trust in politicians, to boost our sense of being engaged in political decisions and to strengthen our belief in our ability to create change. Any potential “Brexit bump” in political interest and awareness is unlikely: the Hansard Society’s recent audit of political engagement shows interest in, and knowledge of, politics falling to around 50%. Just 31% of citizens say they are satisfied with our system of governance.
Our democracy is being held back by our inability to grasp the transformational opportunities that Digital technology provides. This does not mean we should vote via our smartphones. But we should be able to find information on elections, candidates and results easily.
Part of the problem is the UK’s election infrastructure, which has changed little since the Victorian age. Elections are run by almost 400 local authorities, each of which holds and maintains the local information on elections, candidates and results. But voters want to be able to search one resource to get relevant information wherever they are, so there needs to be a central online source. If the data were opened to all, it could be used for inexpensive, scalable and targeted digital information. Meanwhile, millions are spent on sending physical poll cards, which have no information on candidates or on where voters should go to find out more.
Candidates themselves are also missing an opportunity to reach more voters, more cheaply and quickly, with digital information. An extraordinary effort by volunteers has managed to gather the names, candidacy and party details of around 16,000 candidates standing in these elections. Despite an open invitation for candidates to add their details to whocanivotefor.co.uk, and hundreds of hours searching by volunteers, fewer than 2,500 candidates appear to have any kind of digital presence – even when we count a publicly available email address. Fewer than 10% of candidates have a public Twitter account or Facebook page. A tiny proportion have a website.
Local democracy matters. Councils deal with many of the issues that actively affect our daily lives. Some of the larger councils raise and spend over £1bn per year. And yet turnout in the local elections will be poor, perhaps 30%. We let citizens down when we ask them to take part without helping them to understand the context of their decision and the options before them. And we continue to ignore the problems with our democratic process at our peril. The greatest threat to our democracy is not Russian meddling, but complacency and apathy.
Happily, there are some grounds for optimism. A concerted effort is being made by civic technologists – coders, designers and researchers – to make information on elections more open. Progress made for the local elections will enable lessons to be learned for the general election on 8 June. Projects such as Democracy Club, of which I am a director, bring together non-partisan efforts to improve access to information before voters cast their ballot. Partnerships are being formed with the large digital companies, which have national-scale audiences and the power – and willingness, if only we will take the opportunity – to push non-partisan information to tens of millions of people.
We should not have to rely on volunteers and their sense of civic duty to update our democracy. The UK is in dire need of a sustainable, publicly funded institution that takes charge of encouraging participation and involvement in all aspects of the democratic process – one with a significant budget and the ability to test and evaluate what works; one that has enough distance between itself and the government in order to be trusted by the public. We must see such an organisation as an investment – perhaps an insurance policy – for a democratic future. The alternative does not bear thinking about.