10 June 2024

NextGov: Revitalising local democracy

NextGov: Revitalising local democracy image
Image: Mark Yuill / Shutterstock.com.

In this instalment of our NextGov series, Dr Jess Garland, director of Research and Policy for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), looks at what the next government should do to revitalise local democracy.

Going into a General Election with the dust barely settled on the local elections this year was a surprise to most and there are still many questions to be answered on the impact of the changes to our elections introduced by the Elections Act 2022. The next government needs to take these impacts seriously and look to how local democracy might be revitalised.

We don’t know yet how many voters were turned away due to the new Voter ID rules at the May 2024 locals but if the previous elections are anything to go by – where 14,000 voters were turned away at polling stations and many more didn’t turn out in the first place – it is likely that this scheme had a similar impact this year and will have an even greater one in the forthcoming General Election.

What we do know is that the new scheme is putting additional strain on electoral services. As reported last year, voter ID has added to existing pressures on electoral administrators, increasing stress, adding complexity, and making it harder to find staff for polling stations. Applications for Voter Authority Certificates – the only option for voters who lack one of the accepted forms of ID – were far lower last time around than the numbers of voters estimated to need one. And whilst applications have increased since the election was called, they have not done so at a sufficient rate to cover the estimated two million people who lack an accepted form of ID.

Being able to cast your vote is a fundamental right and no one should be prevented from casting a legitimate vote by arbitrary rules. A thorough review of the voter ID scheme needs to take place after this election and major changes made.

Alongside this, the next government should look at ensuring every eligible voter is on the register by introducing automatic or more automated registration. As well as ensuring the millions of missing voters are correctly registered, this could ease the pressures on electoral registration officers (EROs) created by duplicate registrations in busy periods.

This year we also saw changes to how Mayors and PCC are elected, with the Supplementary Vote (SV) switched to First Past the Post (FPTP). SV allows voters to cast a first and second preference with the top two candidates going through to a second round of counting. This means the eventual winner has a greater spread of support than would be the case under FPTP where candidates can win on small pluralities of the vote.

There were many cases of these reduced mandates at this year’s elections. Our analysis of the Mayoral and PCC elections found numerous examples of winning candidates elected with small vote shares, whilst in 2021, under the previous system, no candidate was elected without the support of at least 40% of voters (as a first preference vote or transferred second preference).

With many parties looking to further English devolution, consideration of the democratic structures that are needed to support this are essential. If Mayors have significant powers, they should also command the widest possible support.

There are other ways the next government could improve local elections. In Wales, councils can now choose to move to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, used in Scotland since 2007. After its introduction in Scotland, uncontested seats (where councillors are automatically elected because there is no competition) were all but eliminated and continue to be a rarity. Yet many of these seats still exist across local government in England and Wales because of FPTP which places the bar too high for challengers. This is bad for both voters and local democracy. A move to STV for local councils would do a lot to revitalise local democracy.

From ensuring we have robust democratic structures to support a deepening and widening devolution in England to ensuring that every local voice can be heard at the ballot box, democracy must be at the heart of the next government’s plans for local government.

Check out: NextGov: What the next government should do for children’s services.

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