Aug 02 2014

Better democracy for Harrow by @PraxisReform

guest_postGuest post from @PraxisReform:

Democracy, we are told, is a form of government in which _all_ eligible citizens participate equally. Yet, at each election voters are presented with a sort of Hobson’s choice of supporting what’s on offer, or not voting at all.

As a result, many people say they won’t vote for the party they actually want to vote for, because it has virtually no chance of winning, or because they can’t see any differences between the parties on offer to them. Perhaps they object to the party policies, or the parties have put forward candidates who have been shown to be self-serving, power hungry individuals with objectionable views, or are simply people in the pockets of big business, rather than being interested in representing local people with integrity and improving UK politics.

That is frustrating and disempowering for everyone, and leads many people to either make a protest vote for extremist parties, which they believe won’t win the election, to spoil their ballot paper or to give up on
democracy and not vote at all. Whereupon, they are derided by politicians and the media as too stupid, lazy or apathetic to go out and vote.

Looking in depth at the results of the recent Local elections in Harrow, I see that Harrow Council reports blank ballot papers in the category of “void for uncertainty”, along with the ballots from people who have
misunderstood the instructions on how to cast their vote, have identified themselves on the ballot paper, or have given their opinion of the state of politics in Harrow without marking any candidate.

This seems to be the minimum requirement – as required by the Electoral Commission – and I am not suggesting that there is anything untoward in the way that Harrow has conducted its past elections.

However, I contend that disillusionment with politicians is not the same as indifference – and therefore those voters that intentionally left their ballot papers blank are making an active and well thought out choice – effectively saying that they want something better than what is being offered to them.

So, I am today calling upon Harrow council to commit to lead the way in future elections, by separating the blank ballot papers from the “rejected” ones, and publishing the number of blank ballots, along with the candidate totals. Since in a healthy democracy, people who don’t want any of the candidates still need to be heard, and we all want to know that there is a full and fair choice within the democratic system.

I’m sure there are people that will dismiss this idea, but it’s not as crazy as you might think. Many countries across Europe have a tradition of counting and reporting the number of blank votes cast (Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Norway, Spain for example), and even the London Assembly
publishes the number of blank ballot papers counted, if you search hard enough on it’s website.

Further, Members of Parliament may register an active abstention from an issue by voting both “Yes” and “No” to a ballot. But, voters in the UK who want to engage with the democratic process are not allowed to say they don’t like any of the parties.

So, come on Harrow Council, please lead the way amongst Councils by committing to publish the number of blank ballot papers at the next election, and in all future elections. A blank ballot is a positive and
pro-democratic form of protest for people who would otherwise not vote, and demands that people actually think about the election and take part, rather than simply opting out.

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  1. Terry Mills

    A first class idea.

  2. Concerned Harrovian

    I agree a first class idea. If there were an apathy party in Harrow it would now be running the council. The level of disillusionment amongst voters must be sky high. Shamefully, Harrow councillors appear on the Liars, buggers and thieves’ web site. It amazed me to read in the local election results that two convicted criminals who stood as councillors received votes!

  3. Cllr. Paul Osborn

    I have spoken to the Returning Officer, who runs the elections, about this. He said they are planning to do this in future elections.

  4. PraxisReform

    Excellent news Cllr. Osborn (and many thanks for making the effort to look into this). Would we be able to get this formalised into the council’s election procedures or a policy document even?

    It’s easy for small changes to become overlooked and forgotten about, before they’ve had the chance to become more of a tradition.

  5. PraxisReform

    I doubt that the Returning Officer will be reading through all the old posts on iHarrow to remind himself what he’s promised, just prior to the next election. So I ask again, has this change been added to the vote counting work instructions?

  6. Cllr. Paul Osborn

    It was written in to the “lessons learned” exercise. I will have a chat with the Returning Officer tomorrow and see if it can be put more formally into a policy document.

  7. PraxisReform

    Surely “lessons learned” is for occasions where the Council has made a mess of things, however in this instance, I guess the Returning Officer could have quite reasonably said we’re following the legal minimum requirements set out by the Electoral Commission – tell Mr Reform to go boil his head – we’ve done nothing wrong.

    Anyway, I’ve read recent comments about the Council committing to Continuing Professional Development for their staff. So, surely there’s a similar improvement scheme for Council processes as a whole…

    Thus, recording this change is evidence that the Council:
    1. has listened to local residents
    2. has taken note of their suggestions
    3. has considered and agreed them
    4. has recorded the decision made
    5. will take action to implement the decision
    6. can check that the action was implemented as agreed
    7. is able to assess the effectiveness of the change

    These are all good things, so surely this is one instance where the council could be trumpeting that they are doing more than just the absolute bare minimum required.

    On the other hand, without records being kept, it’s easy for people to ignore that anything is different, and thus they can say “Um, well, we forgot” or “Gosh, err, nobody told us”.

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