Imagine if we held an election and nobody came

By Stuart Wilks-Heeg on Nov 15, 12 11:32 AM in Merseyside


It was in May, following disappointing turnouts in the English local elections, that I was first asked to predict how low turnout might be in today's Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) ballots. I've been asked many times since, always confident to predict that less than one-third of registered electors will cast a ballot. The Electoral Reform Society has predicted that overall turnout will be less than 20%, and I wouldn't bet against that possibility.

Scanning comments on twitter this morning, there were plenty of reports of empty polling stations (see my twitter feed for examples). There were also plenty of people indicating their intention to spoil their ballot, as a protest against the whole idea of elected PCCs, and urging others to do the same.

For months now, the lack of enthusiasm about the impending PCC elections has reminded me of the scenes in Jose Saramago's (2007) novel 'Seeing'. Having returned from an empty polling station myself earlier today, I couldn't resist re-reading the first few chapters.

The novel starts in a polling station where the staff quickly begin to grow concerned about the possibility that bad weather is causing electors to stay at home on the day of local elections:


"The ballot box was empty, pure, immaculate, but there was not a single voter in the room to whom it could be shown. Perhaps one of them is lost out there, battling with torrents, enduring the whipping winds, clutching to his bosom the document that proves he is a fully enfranchised citizen (...) Barely half an hour had passed when the presiding officer, who was getting anxious, suggested that one of the poll clerks should go and see if anyone was coming, voters might have turned up to find the door blown shut by the wind and gone off in a huff, grumbling that the government might have at least had the decency to inform people that the election had been postponed."

After a slow trickle of electors visiting throughout the day, there is a sudden surge of voting after 4pm, resulting in a near-universal turnout. But Saramago adds an unexpected twist: when the votes are counted, over 70% of them are found to be entirely blank.

Faced with a lack of a mandate, and thus lacking legitimacy, the city council and the government decide that the election must be held again. This time around, electors head to the polls in large numbers, and in bright sunshine, from the moment the polls open. The authorities breathe a collective sigh of relief, and turnout is effectively 100%. But, when the ballots are counted the pattern of voting is repeated: 83% of votes are blank.

The plot of Saramgo's novel then describes in detail the farcical situation of a government declaring a state of emergency and imposing increasingly repressive measures on the city's inhabitants for their refusal to exercise their free, democratic rights. In desperation, the Prime Minister opts to declare a state of siege, which he hopes will be successful in "restoring the citizens to democratic normality".

Since it is entirely fictional, the unfolding of events in 'Seeing' has an ironic, comic quality. But it does raise some pretty profound questions about how public officials can claim a mandate to govern if citizens opt not to provide them with one. As one protagonist in the novel declares, the electorate are effectively sabotaging the democratic system by bringing about a 'civic power cut'.

We rarely think about the issue of low levels of electoral participation in this way. Instead, low turnouts in elections are usually dismissed as the product of voter apathy. A few argue that abstentions and spoilt ballots should be regarded as the legitimate protest of electors consciously turning their backs on an out-of-touch political class. Yet, the dominant interpretation is very much 'apathy rules OK'.

Neither view really captures the range of factors responsible for declining turnout. These include a generalised loss of faith in representative democracy; a declining sense of civic duty about voting; falling levels of voter identification with political parties; and increased ideological convergence in the party system.

But, just as importantly, there seems to be almost no discussion of the consequences of ultra-low turnouts for the operation of democracy. How low would turnout have to be before we were forced to concede that there was no electoral mandate? Have we already passed this point and simply not noticed? Or is the essential point of a democracy simply that all adult citizens have the right to vote, regardless of whether they choose to exercise it or not?

Supporters of directly-elected PCCs argue that the fact that they will receive any votes at all will provide them with a stronger democratic mandate than unelected police authorities. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has refused to say what she would regard as the minimum level of turnout that would be acceptable in today's elections.

There is every chance that these arguments will be tested to the limit today. But if turnout is low and the proportion of spoiled (or blank) ballots is high, I certainly won't be celebrating.

The blurb to Saramago's novel notes that the events he portrays are 'the politician's
ultimate nightmare: disillusionment that renders the entire democratic system useless'. Yet, it is impossible to read the book without concluding that a democratic system rendered useless by the lack of a popular mandate would be the elector's worst nightmare too.

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