England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

What is turnout? Why is it so low in local elections?

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Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

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A fundamental part of democracy at all levels is holding elections, so citizens have the opportunity to vote for their preferred representatives – usually, candidates who share their political views and advocate for policies which would reflect the change they want to see in their communities.

Turnout refers to the percentage of voters who actually cast their ballot at an election in proportion to all the people eligible to vote. It’s an important indicator of participation in democracy and is often used as a method of determining the health of a democracy. High turnout is seen as a sign of a healthy, functioning democracy, whereas low rates of turnout can be cause for concern.

Like most nations, turnout in the UK is highest for elections held at the national level (general elections). In fact, turnout rates from past UK elections show there is quite a variation in turnout levels depending on the type of election. The highest being general, then devolved administrations, the European parliament (no longer relevant to the UK), and at the lowest level, local elections.

Not only is there turnout variation among the UK’s different countries, regions and local authorities, but there are also variations in voter participation based on demographic characteristics, such as age, gender and ethnicity. There are also rules around voting rights which restrict voting privileges, for example, to those under 18 or imprisoned, and different rules for who can and can’t vote depending on their citizenship.

Why is local election turnout so low?

There are several reasons which contribute to low voter turnout during local elections. The most pervasive seems to be a lack of perceived importance around local elections. There is an integral myth in society that local elections don’t have as much impact on people’s lives as national elections do, and therefore, many feel that participating in them is not a priority. They are seen as ‘second-order’ elections in the language of political science. As we know and advocate for at LGIU, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Local elections and local representatives can have a significant impact on people’s day-to-day lives, often these decisions at the local level hold the most direct consequences and impact. This is because local councils and councillors hold authority over a range of critical services and amenities that communities rely on every single day. Other implications of drivers which may contribute towards low turnout at local elections are explored in this interesting read from UK in a Changing Europe.

Interested in finding out more about what local government does? Check out LGIU’s facts and figures here



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