Amelia Ringer is a university student from South Wales, with a love for politics and activism in Wales and the UK in general.
How is it that in this knowledge-hungry, relentlessly informed modern world, voter turnout rates as low as 60%, and in some areas lower, are the norm for every election in Wales? This figure alone is incredibly low in comparison to European countries such as Belgium and Sweden, with over 80% voter turnout; why is it that a country of our size, intimately affected by serious voting matters, does not have more of its population voicing their concerns?
Is our government doing enough? And if not, what can it do to raise these numbers so that the people’s will can be more effectively carried out?
From conversations with friends and family, along with my own experiences as a Welsh citizen, I came up with a few explanations for how turnout is so low, and how that can be at least partially addressed in order to support Welsh democracy.
A simple answer is that many people simply cannot be bothered to turn up to a voting station to cast their ballot, thinking perhaps that their one vote in thousands counts for little, their voice unlikely to be heard amongst the mountains of other votes. And while I choose to believe the issue is more nuanced than that, it is undeniable that no matter what the government did, some fraction of people would still exercise their democratic right not to vote.
However, it appeared evident through my conversations that a lot of those who do not cast their vote have no idea there is an election at all; there is a huge problem with Welsh elections not being ‘advertised’ enough to people. Sure, we all get ads about voting now and then but the significance of these political events evidently isn’t being made clear enough to people if only half the population is actually casting their vote. The government needs to make some improvements so that the people of Wales are far more informed with regard to their country’s democracy.
To their credit, the Welsh government have recently introduced new plans to increase the voter turnout, such as lowering the voting age to 16 so that more of the general population can vote in elections. Also, the newly introduced ‘flexible voting’ is expected to encourage more voters this coming May, where constituents in Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly and Torfaen will have 5 days extra to vote before the election day on May 5th. These schemes from the government are most definitely positive steps on the path forward to increasing voting in Wales, but their limitations are difficult to ignore.
For example, the introduction of the lowered voting age last year was slightly successful with a slight increase in voter numbers, but not a lot of young people were properly educated on the parties or election in general, notwithstanding the fact that young people have the lowest turnout rate across age demographics anyway. In my opinion, there needs to be more of a push in schools towards young people having say in these vital elections, as the people aged 16-25 alone could make a huge difference in the outcome of this year’s results if they just went to the polls.
I’m not necessarily saying bombard students and young people with information, but the teaching of political matters, at least from secondary school stage, will encourage more people to become more engaged with political discourse from a young age, and will hopefully open the door for more mature, intelligent and open democratic dialogue from people who, lest we forget, are set to deal with the implications of today’s politics for longer than any voting group.
This valuable information being given to the young people could only be a good thing, especially as we enter a strange new world where people, especially those who don’t know any better, such as children, are being influenced more and more easily by an increasingly biased media at best and trolls on the internet at worst. At worst, people will be more informed, which is conducive to the integrity of Welsh democracy, as well as being in the best interests of those voters represented by the AMs in the Senedd.
Flexible voting’s lengthened time period is positive in that it increases the opportunity for voters to have their say, but the fact that it is not available nationwide is just another issue. However, the areas served by the councils selected could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country. These areas were specifically chosen due to low turnout relative to their large populations, and so any improvement there sets a good microcosmic precedent should this be adopted elsewhere.
Furthermore, the government didn’t choose flexible voting as the only solution to the problem; those areas without it have also been promised more polling stations in towns, in places such as schools, workplaces and community centres, most of which are all easily accessible for everyone, and all of which are better places to vote than nowhere.
Many people who choose not to vote will end up not voting because they simply have more important things to do the day of the election, but allowing multiple days to vote decimates that risk; now, people who want to vote but wouldn’t have been able to can, and with people only more able to vote, turnout can only increase. However, funding all of this infrastructure improvement would not be a walk in the park, and while it is easy to hypothesise about how best to improve turnout, it’s important to remain realistic about options.
Despite this, I believe lengthening the voting period, increasing the number of places wherein you can vote and improving upon politics in education are all very good starting points. Those less engaged will become more engaged, and from there they are more free to make informed decisions and those who are already politically engaged but wouldn’t be able to vote in person for whatever reason now have more options.
Altogether, I believe that the Welsh Government is definitely making an improvement this year in relation to how they prepare citizens for the election in May. The plans for young voters and voters in general are bound to amount to at least a slight increase but the onus cannot fall squarely on the system to maintain itself; speak to your friends and family. Speak to acquaintances. Spread the awareness as far as you can.
The next election is always the most important. Always make sure your voice is heard.