Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

Following the latest in a series of policy announcements which favour the old (who vote) over the young (who don’t), this morning I wondered: what we can do to engage non-voters? If the people who don’t currently vote turned out, how different would our policy choices be?

It’s clear many of us care about democracy and the need for mass participation, yet too many of us feel it’s just not delivering in its current form. Too many of us think it’s not worth us taking part, or aren’t sure what we can do to engage people with politics. So I asked:

The reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. It’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, so I briefly caught up with James Cattell and Alex Blandford after work, and together we came up with a vague plan for UK Vote Camp – an initiative aimed at increasing participation in the 2015 General Election.

The idea, in a nutshell: We believe that by bringing policymakers, geeks and citizens together, we can better understand why democratic participation is low, and find ways we can use technology, online engagement and other strategies to engage people with the democratic process.

We’re proposing a series of unconference-type sessions in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, with the end goal of increasing turnout amongst those groups who generally don’t normally come out and vote.

So how do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s kind of the point. I care so much about voting that I honestly skipped down to the polling station to vote for the first time in the European Elections 1999. Yeah, really. But I’ll concede I’m atypical, and I can totally understand the reasons why someone might not turn out. Some of them are structural; in a constituency based system someone might legitimately feel their vote doesn’t count. Short of reforming the voting system, there not much I can do about that. But there are plenty of people who simply feel the current system could somehow be better. Plenty of people who feel that if they had something to vote for, or better understood why their vote mattered, then maybe they would. That, I think, we can do something about.

Can we help people understand the power of their own vote? Can we improve democracy? I reckon we can.

polling station sign

So let’s talk

First, we need to understand what it is that makes people think it’s not worth turning out. Some issues are to do with our voting system. Others are to do with improving understanding of what we vote for, when  and why. Data could help; insight into voter turnout could help people see the potential impact that those who previously didn’t vote could potentially have. Voter engagement matters, too. There’s plenty we can learn from successful peer engagement campaigns like Obama’s.

I’m proposing we kick off with a day to discuss why participation is low, and what we can do about it.

Then let’s make some stuff

Once we know why people don’t vote, let’s use our collective talents to try and bridge some of those gaps so voting becomes a more worthwhile proposition for more people. Not with a lets-bring-the-tech-we-already-built-to-show-it-off hack day, but by defining some requirements and working together to make one or more things – apps, sites, engagement programmes, whatever – that help people to understand why voting matters.

Once we’ve made stuff, let’s iterate it. Let’s use what we know, and what we hear from others, to make democracy better, meeting every few months to improve what we’ve done. We have over a year until the general election – that’s enough time to make a real difference.

No, I don’t think it’s the answer to all the reasons why voter turnout is low, but we have to start somewhere. And if that somewhere is bringing together clever people who give a shit to come up with some decent ideas that we can iterate from, then imho that’s an excellent place to start.

Interested? Good. Come to the MySociety open hack this Wednesday, 8 January, at MOZldn at 5.30pm and let’s talk ideas. If you can’t come then, give me a shout – you can find me all over the internets.

Photo credit: secretlondon123

14 thoughts on “Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

  1. Pingback: Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp – Sharon O’Dea | Public Sector Blogs

  2. I really want to be involved if possible, but I’ll be in Birmingham, not London on Wednesday evening. And that kind of makes a point for me. I think one of the problems with our “democracy” is that, for many people, all the decisions seemed to be made very far from where they live, and by people who are very divorced from their everyday realities. So, when planning #votecamp, please remember that London-centricicity is a real barrier

    • Thanks John. I absolutely appreciate that there are lots of reasons why interested people won’t be able to get to a specific venue in London less that 48 hours after I wrote this – but we felt we’d like to kick ideas around with a few people on questions like “how do we get actual non-voters across the country involved” before we start planning in earnest. I’m really keen to hear your ideas on how we can involve groups across the country, and particularly the disenfranchised groups we’d like to target. If you’ve got ideas about how we can broaden the planning process out to involve people elsewhere, then let me know. We can open up a Google Hangout for our meet tomorrow, perhaps, if you’d like to join us virtually?

      I’m not deliberately being exclusive or London-centric, but as with this entire idea, you have to start somewhere, and given James, Alex and I are in London, that’s where we’ve started 🙂

      • Thanks Sharon. No, I understand about what you are doing now. I was thinking more about the event itself. Don’t automatically think it has to be in London, and, wherever, it is, please open it up to remote participation. Good luck with it all

    • I think voter registration drives have to be a part of the puzzle. If your name’s not down on the register, you’re not able to tick the box even if you are so motivated on the day. Would be interesting to see if there’s a correlation between registering and turning up – are people who were driven to register in the previous year more likely to go to the polls? Need MOAR DATA.

      • I’ve always liked the way some US states allow on-the-day registration, so that disorganised folk who get enthused once the campaign hots up aren’t disenfranchised. Turnouts in states that have same-day registration are about 10% higher than in those that do not, although obviously correlation does not imply etc…

        This looks like a great project, by the way, and I’d love to hear more. I’m not in London tomorrow so won’t be able to join you, but please let me know what happens next.

  3. Sounds like a brilliant idea – can’t be with you on Wednesday, alas, but I will follow developments with interest!

    My probably not-very-well-informed opinion is that not enough attention is paid to politics at the local level, in the media or by society at large, which makes it all feel a bit remote. The ‘Cabinet’ politicians of all stripes seem more or less interchangeable – same backgrounds, policies that to the casual glance seem horribly similar, all clustering to the right of the centre, same bombastic style of engagement that is big on rhetoric but light on principle, but nonetheless political coverage (esp on radio/TV) is relentlessly focussed on personality rather than policy – it’s like Twilight, voters are patronised until it’s basically reduced to being ‘Team Dave’ or ‘Team Ed’. When you are exhorted to turn up to your local primary school and vote for some bod you’ve probably never seen on the news or on your doorstep (your local candidate for whichever party you want running the country) – it seems a bit out of the blue. MPs like Stella Creasy, who really engage with their constituents on Twitter (rather than getting a PR to run her account for her) are the exception rather than the rule.

    Also, voting could be a more communal, social activity. When I was a student, me and all my pals went to vote together, bickering furiously about who we were going to vote for, then went to the pub to argue some more – it had a sense of occasion. Harder to manage when people are grown-ups with jobs I suppose, but could some sort of local “‘#voting” thing on Twitter hook neighbours up so they could walk to the polling station together, maybe grab a coffee before/afterwards?

    Just spitballing – looking forward to what you come up with!

  4. I’m definitely up for this (although can’t make Wed).

    I’m product owner for the Government’s new online voter registration service, which we are busy building to launch in June of this year (

    We’re working hard to make the service quick and easy to use for everyone, and we’ve built ‘mobile first’ – which hopefully will help in some small way with younger voters. Also exploring things like how we can link in with social media – “I’ve just registered to vote, have you?” kind of stylee….

    We definitely have the same aim…. >

  5. I couldn’t make it on Wed because it was #ConnectedHousing13 time, very up for this though. Big time.

    A ‘None of the above ‘on the ballot seems like the most bleedin’ obvious statement of basic intelligence and awareness of the health of a system to me, but hey. Def think this is needed.

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  7. Pingback: #ukvotecamp: an update | Sharon O'Dea

  8. So… let’s get this straight.

    We have an entirely corrupt media, largely owned by a handful of corporations that only deliver coverage of the 2 key parties together with the odd sneer at any ‘vote wasting’ alternatives.

    This together with the ‘first past the post’ system ensures the continuation of the left right paradigm.

    Those that make it into parliament swear an oath of allegiance to the Monarchy and to top it all, the establishment maintains it’s odds with the House of Lords.

    Democracy you say.

    As one historian put it… “The British democratic system is one of the most cunningly disguised frauds in modern history”.

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