Belfast Telegraph

Bill White: Arlene Foster's attitude sending voters to the polls

By Bill White

After all the debate about falling election turnouts, the last two Northern Ireland elections reversed that trend.

With previous NI elections having turnouts approaching the dangerous 50% level the most recent two produced turnouts of 64.8% (NI Assembly election) and 65.6% (Westminster election). So what caused this sudden increase in interest from a section of the electorate who had previously not been voting. In particular, who are these people?

Our analysis of the results, and of all the data, received from our six pre-election polls, and also our post-election polling, show some interesting patterns.

On the unionist side there was a notable increase in turnout from the C2DE socio-economic groups – or to put it in plain language from the unionist/loyalist working class.

This particularly applied in the east of Northern Ireland and mostly in the big urban areas specifically Belfast. On the nationalist/republican side the situation is a bit more complicated with a notable section of ABC1 Catholics across NI (i.e. middle class Catholics) who previously didn’t vote, or sometimes voted SDLP or Alliance, coming out to vote – and voting Sinn Fein.

Analysing the voluntary comments made by poll participants from this group, the "attitude of the DUP leader" seemed to be the main driver in terms of getting this group of Catholic non-voters, or sometimes voters, to go back to the polls.

So are these increased turnouts here to stay? There a couple of reasons to say ‘Yes’ to this.

Firstly, voting is habit-forming. An individual voting in one election significantly increases the likelihood of them voting again in the future.

Evidence suggests that the relationship is causation, and not just a matter of correlation.

That is, it’s the act of voting itself which is significant in causing people to vote again, rather than other factors such as the person’s community or social grade.

The psychological reasons as to why this is so, are unknown. Of course, one key event that fed into the increased turnout at NI’s two 2017 elections was the last electoral event of 2016 i.e. the EU Referendum, when 86,000 more people turned out to vote, compared to the 2016 NI Assembly election only seven weeks before. This new 86,000 group were therefore more likely to vote again.

Secondly, now these groups have made their voices heard, when they were previously not involved in the electoral process, the political parties are more likely to devise policies and campaigns that appeal to them, in order to keep their votes.

For example, and not surprisingly, the DUP are carrying on building up their voter registration and campaign activities in unionist working class areas. Perhaps Sinn Fein have a more difficult task to keep the momentum going on their side of the camp, as the reasons for the increase in their vote are more complex. However, no doubt they will work out some strategies to do this. In a way, it’s a virtuous circle – participation leads to representation which leads to participation, and so on.

In addition, the pre-election campaigns could now be more important. An old rule, particularly in NI, is that election campaigns have a limited effect in determining how people will vote.

Prods always vote DUP (or UUP) – Catholics vote Sinn Fein (or SDLP). It’s been the case (in NI and also elsewhere), that only a very small group of people are open to persuasion as campaigns reach their peak – most people have their voting preferences fixed very early into the electoral cycle.

This is changing, and ‘voter volatility’ is on the increase. One of the key groups least likely to have their preferences fixed in advance are young people – this applies across the UK and Ireland, and also applies in NI across all communities.

If we look at the UK wide polling figures 64% of 18-24 year olds only decided which way to vote during the month before the June Westminster election, and 39% made their mind up within the last week. In contrast, just 41% of people aged 65 or over made their minds up in the last month and 25% in the last week. As young people’s votes stay up for grabs longer, they are more sensitive to the highs and lows of the campaign period.

So it looks like larger election turnouts could be the norm for the future in Northern Ireland.

Bill White, is Managing Director of Belfast based LucidTalk Polling and Market Research. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter at @LucidTalk.

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