Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

It’s the turnout in flagship elections that counts

Why voter apathy is big worry for us in Northern Ireland
Why voter apathy is big worry for us in Northern Ireland

You may have noted Alex Kane’s column stating he would not be voting at the forthcoming European and Council elections. He also said that if turnout was lower than 50% it would be ‘a good thing’, as it may have an impact on local politics.

Alex is a shrewd operator, but he could also make a good pollster as he’s following the key rule – don’t stick your neck out too far with predictions. He’s certainly not taking any risks with this assertion, as if the Euro/council poll turnout gets anyway near 50% it will be an achievement, taking into account the Euro 2009 election had only a 43% turnout.

I also noted Sam McBride’s commentary in the News Letter about election turnouts. He mentioned that in the US they are often below 40%, and this doesn’t impact US politics that much. He’s correct, in that the Americans vote for everything including sheriffs, and court judges etc, and that’s where the low turnouts come in.

The UK also has only 30-40% turnouts in local elections. As such, you can’t really say that if the forthcoming poll on May 22 is below 50% then it will affect the flow of politics in Northern Ireland. Why? – Because the May 22 elections are Euro and council elections and are not flagship elections.

All modern countries and western democracies have a flagship election i.e. a main election – The election when they show to the world that they’re a modern thriving democracy. It’s the turnout in a countries flagship or main election that counts, and gives that country (or region) democratic legitimacy.

In the US it’s the election of their president, in the UK it’s the Westminster election, and in Northern Ireland it’s our Assembly election. In the US presidential and UK Westminster elections the turnout has always been 60% to over 70 %.

At the last US presidential election the turnout was estimated at around 65% of the ‘voter electorate population’, which was a remarkable achievement taking into account many people had to queue at polling stations! Admittedly it’s hard to get an accurate turnout figure in US elections because of their complicated registration procedures, which vary from state to state – but it’s always been well over 50% in their presidential elections.

These flagship elections are where Alex Kane’s point comes true – If the US Presidential election, or Westminster election turnout, fell below 50%, then it would be a very serious situation for both those countries, and would almost certainly lead to large changes in their democratic structures.

In Northern Ireland our flagship election is the NI Assembly election, with the last election in 2011 having a dangerously low turnout of 54.7%. It’s significant to note that this was a drop from the 62.3% turnout in 2007, which was a drop from 63.1% in 2003, and 69.9% in 1998.

The next Assembly election will take place in 2016, and a similar drop again would mean a turnout below that magical 50%. This could destabilise the whole assembly and wider peace-process structures. This wouldn’t happen immediately, but the democratic legitimacy of the assembly would be gone, and I would predict that within 2-3 years of the 2016 election the Assembly would collapse, or else would have to be completely reformed. 

So why are less and less people voting? There are various reasons for this - Indeed Sam McBride made another comment, that he recently heard a Stormont Minister (and I’ve a good idea who this is) saying that non-voting ‘could be interpreted as apathy arising from contentment’.

That Minister is wrong – The polling research shows that a key reason people are not voting, is not because they’re particularly content, it’s because they believe that whoever they vote for, or whatever party get’s elected, it won’t make any difference to their own (often not contented) lives.

How someone can say that non-voting people are mostly content, in a region where we’ve had a huge economic recession, NI youth employment is 1 in 4, large No’s of people are on the minimum wage, and a region that’s had the largest housing slump in the UK and significant No’s of people are in negative equity, is beyond me. This comment perhaps shows how out-of-touch the folks on the hill really are.

One thing is clear though – The trend in Northern Ireland elections, and in all western democracies, is towards lower turnouts. For most elections, including this year on May 22, this won’t really matter.

However the trick is to keep your flagship election turnout (in our case the NI Assembly election) well above 50%, which will then give the whole NI government structures legitimacy. However, our politicians should note that the signs aren’t good, and the trends aren’t hopeful, for the next Assembly election in 2016.

Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph

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