The UK is having its first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) today, (Thursday 15 November).
Citizens will have the chance to elect an official who will have the powers to:
- appoint and dismiss chief constables
- set out a five-year police and crime plan
- determine local policing priorities
Theresa May has claimed that they will "be a voice for local people". Perhaps, perhaps not. However, there is a real concern that their democratic role will be undermined by low turnout. So what could have been done?
Ways to increase turnout - lessons from academic research
Low turnout is a problem because elected commissioners may not be representative of broader public opinion. It also reduces the legitimacy of commissioners and perhaps their effectiveness too.
Low turnout would not be a surprise because voter turnout is generally low or declining in many countries. It also tends to be lower in elections other than general elections. However, based on established academic research, government could have done much more to avoid low turnout. It could have:
Provided more information about candidates. Many voters have been complaining that they don't know who the candidates are and what they stand for. Research shows that providing free-post leaflets to candidates helps boost turnout. The government decided against free-post leaflets and instead set up a website. This is problematic because a significant amount of the UK still doesn't have internet access. A telephone line for the public has been set up, but it has received criticisms. The PCC constituencies are too large for candidates to do effectove door knocking so free-post campaign literature seems an obvious way to improve voter awareness.
Held the election at the weekend, not a Thursday. Why? Some democracies hold elections at weekends and research suggests that this helps turnout.
Better still, allow voting over several days. As the US election showed, many US states allow voting weeks in advance. Why not allow voting to take place over several days? Research shows how this can improve turnout.
Hold the elections in May. November is a bad time for electoral officials who are busy updating the electoral register. This means that their resources are drained and they cannot invest in public awareness activities, as they might at other points in the year. I interviewed many electoral administrators and they were concerned about a November election. More importantly, research shows that combining elections can help boost turnout. If elections were combined with local or other elections in May, turnout might have been much higher. Ideally, combine it with a general election. There have been some claims that November's early and dark night reduce turnout. I'm not aware of any research that demonstrates this. But please correct me if I'm wrong.
Plan better Research shows that errors made in the way that elections are run, voters' interactions with poll workers etc., can undermine confidence. The Electoral Commission issued some early warnings that planning had not progressed sufficiently at the earlier stages. There are some reports of leaflets not being delivered on time, problems with the telephone helpful for voters and confusion about who can and cannot be a candidate. Some teething problems are inevitable, but they might have been avoided, and won't help turnout and public trust.
Electing Commissioners on the cheap
The bottom line seems to be that the election could have been improved if more was spent on running it. Understandably, the government will be keen to keep costs down. Primarily, they will be concerned about arguments from the Labour Party that the money spent on the election could have been spent on more police officers.
However, if we are to have PCCs then it is important that they are not elected on the cheap. It undermines the eventual Commissioners, it undermines the police, and it undermines democracy.