Democracy 2.0: Alternative approaches to voting and the appointment of MP’s

As a political system, democracy cannot function without the consent of the people it serves, and the surest way of confirming that consent is to encapsulate that consent within a political choice: Voting. It’s a remarkably simple process which allows the determination of binary and non-binary choices within a nation state. However, in recent years the percentage of people choosing to participate in the voting process has fluctuated wildly, decreasing in some years while increasing in others. The problem is that in both cases, turnout is still not what it needs to be to make the democratic process the most efficient and reflective model of society.

What if we could make the system so appealing that voters would flock to polling booths in their droves? What if we could engineer a system which delivered 100% voter turnout, in election after election and referendum after referendum?

Consider if you will the implications of having a 100% voter turnout. Every citizen is engaged within the process, none is disadvantaged. Although a citizen can still retain the right to complain about instances where public services are not delivered, they are now engaged enough to vote in a process which will enable them to change that delivery. Cries of “my views are not represented” become a thing of the past. Greater engagement in the voting process would work, in concert with other reforms presented in other articles to close the disenfranchisement gap present in democracy today.

Fundamentally, why do people not want to vote? As an advocate of voting and engaging in the political process, I struggled to understand why someone would not want to vote. It’s like participating in Game of Thrones (or perhaps not that extreme) but you see my point. Then I thought about it a little more, trying to put myself in their shoes, considered the current political setup and it seemed a realistic viewpoint.

Given the conduct of politicians, given the lack of practical differences between political parties and given their overt lack of interest in obtaining your vote, why would anyone vote in such a process? To address this issue, we need to take it apart, piece by piece. First issue, which is probably the simplest to deal with is voting on weekdays. Individuals who do a full 9-5 or in some cases an even longer day have no time to vote. Who’d want to after a hard day at the intellectual coalface? It’s no coincidence that often the biggest turnout in voting is from the elderly and retired individuals. So, when’s best for this to take place? The weekend would be the logical choice, but it’s not as simple as that. The Electoral Commission would be required to appoint staff to cover a process occurring outside of office hours, resulting in extra expenditure to the public purse.

Politician Idol?

So, what’s the solution? Allocating more money to the process, something which would work in principle but there will always be that dissenting voice which says no. But would a guarantee of more voters turning out sway the decision? An argument can be made that it would. Political decisions could be seen as definitive with no room for the inevitable “it’s not truly reflective of public will” debate.

Introducing increased technology into the voting process may seem like a good way of increasing voting, after all technology exists to make our lives more convenient and processes more accessible. However, the roll-out of an electronic voting system, either through a phone app or online site, would be an immensely expensive and time-consuming thing to do, with the cost spiralling potentially into billions. Also, technology is not infallible, apps can crash, internet sites can be hacked or cloned by individuals with nefarious aims, or even rival states intent on sabotaging political structures. For all its faults, the current voting process is the path of least resistance.

In the absence of making voting a weekend experience, the most obvious methods of encouraging increased participation in the voting process are to incentivise voting or alternatively disincentivise non-voting. So, what do I mean by incentivising voting? Financial incentives would be the most likely approach, with voters being paid if they turn up at the ballot boxes. However, this sort of scenario would open the voting process up to potential malfeasance and corruption, with registrars taking bribes or potential robbery of funds used to pay voters. Another potential method of incentivised voting could be a reduction in council tax if individual participate. If it gets voters through the door, then it will prove its worth, especially in reducing the current burden on the Electoral Commission.

On the other side of the coin, disincentivising non-participation in the voting process could also be just as easy. Simply remove access to benefits or increase the financial burden on individuals. Individuals must be made to understand that non participation in voting is not something to aspire to.

Incentivising the voting process

We have to turn the perception of voting away from the current negative standpoint to a more positive standpoint. To coin a marketing phrase, we have to get “bums on seats” and keep them there. One often muted but never followed up on method is to widen the age restriction for voting to include individuals under the age of 18, with the incentive being to be considered an adult. The age of 18 is considered to be a watershed, in which individuals are given the right to drive, they finish their education and so on.

Having the opportunity to vote, while a potent symbol of adulthood does not necessary guarantee that the individual will vote, after all there are lots of over 18s who don’t vote even with the opportunity. So, the emphasis has to be on drawing those young people into the process, through targeted campaigns and inclusive politicising by all the main parties. However, in allowing individuals to vote who are under the age of 18, you effectively triple the burden on the Electoral Commission because of the need to add these people to the voting rolls. So, is the burden worth it?

Another method of increasing voter turnout could potentially be giving voters the opportunity to select their own party candidates. Under the current system, individuals can be placed on the ballot merely by making a £500 deposit and submitting a few forms. While this may seem simple, the problem comes when campaigning begins because no matter the person’s political standpoint, money talks and the most likely candidate to win is the one who can command the most campaign financing.

Levelling the playing field

But what if you take that advantage away and level the playing field? Take the campaign out of the hands of the prospective MPs and have an external entity run it. Have every candidate submit their intended policies to that entity, for publication in a unified document sent out to every voter, a sort of candidate go compare if you will. Shift the emphasis away from the bluster and back to the fundamental question of choice: What do you do differently to him/her?

Each candidate will, broadly speaking, campaign on the same sorts of issues. These can be laid side by side on a page as simply as possible. This would have the effect of providing greater information to the voter. Simplifying the choice involved and making it easier to do so. Existing MP’s could be forced to declare what they have done in their current tenure and what they plan to do alongside these other candidates.

Force the aspiring MP to really put some thought into their political stance beyond just party lines. Make it relevant to the community they serve, so the public service element of politics swings back into consciousness. We need to make being a politician an occupation worth aspiring to, like being a footballer or a celebrity.

So how do you increase the appeal of becoming a politician? How do you increase the appeal of any job? It’s a chicken and egg scenario. We have to improve the process before we can create the conditions for increased appeal. Positive depictions of politicians, away from the constant bickering and child like behaviour do not help. We need our politicians to sign up to a better standard of behaviour and as anyone watching the last few weeks in parliament will tell you we need it now.

If voters respect politicians, they vote for politicians, and respect is only gained via trust. Trust comes from openness and openness in the political process is something we can engender with these changes. The natural by-product of this respect is the increased appeal of becoming a politician so that it is an occupation which not only is something to be wanted, but something that actually works within the political structure to a positive end. Regardless of the need to change democracy, the rehabilitation of the public image of politicians is something which should be undertaken as soon as possible.

Once this is achieved, voting will become a necessity for all.

The Party Line is……….Democracy and the vote: Time for a change?

Democracy.  Nine letters, Six Consonants, Four Syllables, Three vowels and One Idea: Freedom for all with restriction for none. Men have raised armies to defend it, more people have died for it than can be counted and as an idea it has grown into one of the defining political ideas of our age.  Yet for all its bluster, all its redeeming features and promises, all the moments of great change that it has inspired, it remains at its heart that same idea.

It sounds a wonderful idea, doesn’t it?  Freedom of existence, of speech, of expression and freedom from suppression by means internal and external.  Ideas are always very romantic concepts and it is easy to associate grand sweeping changes with them, but taking away all the romance and grandness, the reality is still an extremely interesting and socially stimulating idea.

One of the many realities of democracy is the ability to remove current mechanisms of government and provide new ones for the ongoing security of the populous as a whole. This is the democratic process and includes the fundamental concepts of choice and different political views. This choice is expressed using the electoral vote.

Still with me?  Good.

A vote is a very simple thing, a small piece of paper by which a populous expresses its collective political views. Individuals who vote are exercising this right to choose their political leaders based on the policies and views of that group in relation to their own.

Bringing this into current events, last Thursday there were a number of local council and mayoral elections across the United Kingdom.  Nine political parties contested just fewer than 2800 seats in 124 councils. Also four cities chose new Mayors with 36 elections of new Police and Crime commissioners. Aside from the general election it should be the greatest expression of the democratic process, yet if you were to ask the man on the street to name his elected official or their policies, he would struggle.

Surely in such an interesting and varied process, voter turnout should be 100%, everyone should be interested and energized by their role in this expression of public will? …… No not really.

In point of fact, voting numbers have been reducing steadily over the last 50 years.  In providing freedom of expression, democracy has contributed to its own decline: as numbers of individuals participating in this process reduces.  The public are disinterested, dissatisfied and disenfranchising themselves from the political process in ever bigger numbers.

At some point in the future, the turnout for elections will be so low that single votes will determine the success of political parties. It is a future which would signal the death of the democratic process, as collective will gives way to individual prejudice.

The problem is that democracy has not moved with the times. In today’s information bombarded, one born every minute world democracy has been left behind in a haze of progress.  There is no great need to change the fundamentals of the democratic process, merely the way they are executed. If you understand what is going wrong with the constituent parts then you can address these issues and strengthen the democratic process as a whole.

A thorough examination of the individual issues relating to the democratic process would take a great number of minds a very long time and would be beyond the scope of this essay. For the purposes of this blog, I intend to focus my attentions on the Voting process: its effect on the populous and what should and needs to be done to increase voting numbers.

A key factor in the decline of voting numbers is the sheer apathy that many voters feel towards the political parties. It is a symptom of the disconnection that individuals perceive between those authorities which govern and those authorities which actually implement policy on a lower level.  They may see the roads being repaired, but they do not make the link between the road repairers, the council they work for, the MP who represents the constituency, the parliament where the MP sits on a regular basis and the policy which is implemented by this MP in parliament itself.

Politicians and parties can look to repair this disconnection by merely spending more time in their constituencies among the people that they represent. By being on the ground, they can prove that they are involved in the community and that they care.  The MP can move from being a nameless face at Westminster to the integral link between the community he serves and the party he represents.

Additionally there is a popular perception that despite whoever you choose to vote for things will not change with “all politicians being as bad as each other”. This perception, in some cases borne out by empirical evidence (the expenses scandal of 2013) is not entirely accurate. Each political party is vastly different from its opposition in both outlook and policy: one may choose to favor one economic policy and another one the other, it all depends on the individuals and the politics involved. The similarities that occur sadly in the type of individuals that are perceived to constitute the bulk of the political parties membership; upper class public school boys or people of better means and breeding than the working man. Some politicians buck this trend, but mostly for the benefit of the media and revert to type once the cameras are off.

Putting all cynicism aside, the perception that politicians are slippery customers can be rectified with greater transparency in the political process and to some degree the political parties have recognized this issue.  They have begun to make greater strides towards transparency, like the legislator changes to expenses claims and accounting and publishing manifestos in advance of elections. The problem is far too often these changes are motivated by unfavorable media coverage like in the case of the aforementioned expenses scandal. More transparency is required if individual voters are to understand the relevance and difference of the political parties in the UK.

The problem of voter apathy has its greatest impact in the younger voters of the UK. While many older voters vote in force due to the traditions instilled in them by their forbears, the voting apathy that pervades those individuals born in the last 40 years has spread to their children and perpetuates itself.  Unless the younger individual is politically minded they may not feel that voting matters due to the previously highlighted reasons.

A system of incentivised voting may prove to be more successful in increasing the percentages of those younger people who do not currently vote. Implementation of financial rewards for voting would be opposed openly by those who do not qualify, however other sorts of rewards such as discounts and preferential treatment on certain council and government utilities would be of benefit to these groups without alienating the rest of the voting populous.

The voting process could be expanded to include the capacity to vote online, thus decreasing the need to attend polling stations. However the removal of physical evidence of voting and the potential fallibility of online systems/sites could stop this from being a viable plan.

This incentivised voting could run from age 18 to 25, providing a vehicle by which more individuals of that age could be encouraged to vote. Incentives could be provided for one vote only, with the promise of additional incentives for the duration of the period. To be truly impartial the incentives could be provided by a central independent authority set up independent of central government like the electoral commission.

Any sort of incentives need to be effectively promoted and mirrored by a corresponding increased emphasis on making political campaigns more relevant to younger voters. Utilization of social media, promotion in outlets frequented by younger voters, appearances by high ranking politicians at youth events would increase their exposure.

If incentivised voting proves to be a success with this demographic, it could potentially be extended to cover additional demographic groups. As with any incentivised system of benefits great care must be taken to ensure that the system is not misused.

Policies aimed specifically at enhancing younger voters lives would also be well received, although care must not be taken to exclude or otherwise discriminate against the already active voters in the UK. Dovetail this with the positive efforts to make individuals understand their place in the political process and we could see a significant upturn in voting turnouts.

As with the older generation, distrust of political figures is prominent but in this case it is added to by immaturity. Voting needs to become a mature choice and part of taking your place in society and this would involve a significant cultural change. Positive propaganda could achieve this, by using celebrities and significant youth culture figures and appealing to individuals through youth markets.

Some politicians like Barack Obama, have drawn on younger voters to increase their own political base and all signs point to this trend continuing into the future. Politicians as whole need to learn to appeal to all demographics of voters, not just those who form their key voting base as the apathetic younger individuals of the present become the uninterested older individuals of the future.

Democracy does work, the UK and the other countries in the world that have adopted it are proof of this success. If it were not a successful and appealing process, countries would not choose to use it in their political destiny. However, the fact that it works does not mean that it is infallible and should be maintained in perpetuity, things need to change in order to remain successful & thriving and democracy is no exception to this rule.

Recognizing that changes needs to occur to the democratic process by individuals at the highest levels of government is what is required. The biggest problem is reluctance to do so, but how long can we afford to let the decline in the democratic process continue?

Making these changes can ensure the long term stability of this unique system of government, providing for future security while being a source of encouragement for other countries to adopt democratic political systems.

 

 

© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.