My last post, on the idea for an unconference aimed at increasing voter turnout, generated a lot of attention and conversation. It feels like there’s a groundswell of interest in, and concern about the impact of low voter turnout.
Around 15 people turned up to our first brainstorming/planning session (picture above); a mixture of digital democracy old hands and new faces. I was particularly pleased to see there were some actual young people joining the conversation (although it later turned out they were there by mistake, having turned up for MySociety’s regular hack night).
The conversation covered a lot of ground. Everyone felt low youth turnout was problematic, but had widely varying opinions on what the reasons for this were, and what can be done about them.
One theme was a belief that one’s vote isn’t worth all that much. This is of course true, but as this clever app from the most recent parliament hack shows, collectively the votes of all the young people who don’t normally turn out could return a very different House of Commons. So there is a job to be done to convince the non-voting public of their collective theoretical power.
This is tempered by the voting system that we have – a vote in a swing seat is worth more than one in a marginal. But short of a revolution, to change the system you need first to engage with it, and that means voting – and then doing more than voting, but campaigning and helping to shape the policy agenda.
And that brings me neatly on to the next theme – that civic engagement is about more than turning up once every five years. The focus on elections alone is part of the problem, so efforts at voter engagement need to be sustainable, and aim to keep people informed and engaged about the ways they can participate in-between general elections.
The young people who attended talked about how they and their peers weren’t registered to vote – some because they weren’t sure how, and others because they believed registering would make them liable for council tax. With the introduction of individual voter registration from June this year, this could become even more confusing, so there’s work to be done to let people know why and how they should register. Because if you’re not registered, you can’t take part at all – it’s like a civic bouncer telling you “if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.
And there’s simply a lack of excitement. Voting isn’t sexy, and nor are most of the candidates on offer. Unlike the older generation, none of us have lived through a time when democracy was ever under threat, and perhaps we take it for granted. So we need to find ways to make democracy interesting again.
That, however, is a big ask. There’s a lot more we need to understand about what would make participation more appealing.
I’ve since spoken with a handful of organisations about how we can take this work forward, and we’re busy putting together a plan for first a research phase (exploring the reasons why engagement is low) and a means of getting people together to identify and develop some solutions.
The next step is to take this idea to a bigger group of people. James, Alex and I will be holding a session at UKGovCamp this Saturday,
24 25 January where we’ll aim to make this a more solid plan. Come along, join the debate via Twitter or the live blogs, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.