Whose responsibility is it to engage citizens in democracy?

'All the evidence seems to suggest that the UK Government believes it has very little responsibility in encouraging citizens to vote.'

Voting Ballot Box

Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.

Unlock Democracy recently asked thousands of councillors up and down the country how the implementation of the Government’s Voter ID scheme was going.

The results didn’t fill us with cheer – eligible voters are going to be turned away from the polls on May 4th. Many more will be deterred from even entering the polling station in the first place.

And we will never know exactly how many.

That’s because to be included in the official statistics for being refused a ballot paper, voters will have to queue up at the polling station and get to the point where ID is checked. A person who sees the ‘Photo ID required’ signs and simply leaves won’t be counted.

Some polling stations will even be using ‘greeters’ who will talk to people outside the polling station to check they have ID. Anyone who leaves will not be recorded.

The vast majority of councillors who responded to us said that their council’s electoral administrators were doing their very best to make the new system work. We wish them well, but a small number of responses were a lot less positive.

Like the councillor who suggested the photo ID isn’t enough for polling stations and that fingerprint security should be introduced. There was the councillor who told us that people in China would leap for joy to have to show voter ID if they were allowed to vote. And then there was the councillor who told us that if people couldn’t get themselves organised with a photo ID, then they didn’t deserve to have a vote anyway.

I won’t waste time answering these comments here, but it did get me thinking – where does responsibility lie in engaging citizens with the democratic process?

Is it down to the citizens, is it the government or is it both?

The direction of travel in the UK has been fairly one way in recent times. It’s the citizens’ responsibility to ensure they’re on the electoral register – latest estimates are that around 9 million people are not. The citizen must turn up at their designated polling station between 7am-10pm on a Thursday to cast their vote. Voting by post or proxy is possible, but recent law changes will likely reduce the number of people voting by post.

It’s been nearly two decades (unless you’re living in Wales) since there was much talk about ways to make it easier to vote – such as voting in any polling station, or in a supermarket, or voting across multiple days, or an expansion of postal voting.

And then there’s our electoral system where even the votes of those who do vote often go to waste. In the 2019 General Election, over a half a million people voted Labour in Scotland, but nearly all those votes didn’t count as Labour won just one seat. In other parts of the country, there were similarly warped results affecting different parties. When citizens see their vote going to waste, then it’s unlikely to increase confidence in democracy.

All the evidence seems to suggest that the UK Government believes it has very little responsibility in encouraging citizens to vote. The new Voter ID scheme will make things worse too.

The Government has refused to even set a target for sign-ups for the new free Voter Authority Certificate, without which, over 2 million people will lose the right to vote.

They say it’s up to the people and wash their hands of it. We think this is a short sighted approach that does more harm than good to democracy.

We think that democracy is stronger when more people take part. The more engaged citizens we have, the more representative our elected bodies will become. The more who make their voices heard, the harder it will be for those in power to ignore them.

The fact is that it’s very easy for politicians to ignore people who don’t vote. It’s also very easy for citizens to feel ignored when the voting system leaves them unrepresented, which then leads to more citizens not voting. It’s a vicious cycle.

We can’t help but wonder about how Parliament and Government priorities might be different if more people voted, changing the makeup of the electorate?

We would love to find out – so should all true democrats!

We think the government must take more responsibility in broadening our democracy. Here’s five ways that they could do that:

  1. Introduce a Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) scheme that ensures more voters are on the UK electoral register – by registering citizens when they interact with other government services. The Welsh Government has already taken a first step in this direction.
  2. Trial (as they are doing in Wales) different ways for citizens to vote – why must we restrict voting to a single location in the middle of the work week? We’ve seen in the US that early voting schemes can get more people voting – why not here?
  3. Run citizenship classes in all schools so that every young person knows their rights and how to make their voice heard in our democracy.
  4. Change our electoral system so that every vote counts – the makeup of the House of Commons should reflect the votes cast in the election.
  5. Drop Voter ID requirements that blatantly discriminate against specific communities and place an unnecessary barrier in front of eligible voters.

These are all practical (and inexpensive!) ways that we could broaden the involvement in our democracy and strengthen it immeasurably in the process.

Of course at the end of the day, it must always be the citizen’s choice whether or not to take part in our democratic processes. We don’t believe in forcing people to vote.

But, it should be the duty of every democratic government to do its best to help its citizens to be part of the democratic process. It can do this by ensuring that all citizens are registered to vote, can vote conveniently, have knowledge about their role, know that the system will ensure their vote counts and that they won’t be prevented from voting by unnecessary barriers.

That’s the way to a stronger democracy and Parliaments and Governments that are truly representative of the people. It’s a big and overdue step towards taking action to restore some trust and confidence in our elected politicians too.

Visit Unlock Democracy’s action centre on Voter ID here

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