3 Ways to Improve Democratic Participation in Scotland

Democracies around the world are facing a crisis in relevance and participation. Scotland is no different. The most recent local elections in 2017 had a turnout of 45%, which is bad but astonishingly was an improvement on the 2012 turnout that had a paltry 39.6%. That figure was the lowest since the Scotland Act 1998 and the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

Something needs to change. That is why we mostly welcome the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform. We’ve made ourselves quite clear on where we stand with electronic voting at national elections as a risk. The numbers simply don’t add up for e-voting improving participation or turnout.

But there are three areas where changes could bring improved democratic participation:

  • Reduce the voting age;
  • Bring democracy closer to the individual, in interesting ways;
  • Make elections matter.

There is clearly a serious problem in Scotland when it comes to democratic participation, and while electronic voting is not the answer, that doesn’t mean the problem is insoluble. That’s why we’ve brought together some other possible solutions, some from Scotland, some from around the world to contribute the conversation.

Reduce the voting age

Simple, and no need to introduce a fancy technological solution.

Research shows that lowering the age from 18 to 16 can improve participation. First time voters at 16 and 17 turn out in greater numbers than first time voters 18 – 24 year olds. The Scottish Indenpendence referendum in 2014 confirmed that (75% to 54% respectively). In Norway, 16 year olds found it important to visit the ballot box in the polling place, viewing it as a sign of maturity. Perhaps a contributing reason why they kept the lowered voting age but dropped their electronic voting trials.

It is welcome to see the Scottish Government seeking views to maintain voting at 16 and to open it up to those legally resident in Scotland.

Bring democracy closer to the individual, in interesting ways

Focusing entirely on how a person casts a vote for the party they least hate every four or five years is backwards and short sighted. Initiatives like participatory budgeting, where a local authority’s spending priorities are set by local residents, can facilitate a more direct connection between the individual and the State. People meet, come with ideas, vote on those ideas, and the ideas with the most votes wins. Simple.

These events often take place in town halls, bringing communities together. The Democratic Society do a great job facilitating that. And guess what!? There is even a place for technology in all of this in helping others to get involved. This vision of direct democracy, facilitated by technology, can work. Bringing the day to day of democracy into people’s homes and communities, giving them real outcmes that they see in their community plays a huge role in driving participation. 

Make elections matter

When it comes to turnout during national elections and referendum, having an election that actually mattes, that will create a genuine change, would appear to be the driving force for getting out the vote. Look at Scotland’s independence referendum, it broke records for the turnout because the outcome genuinely mattered and it helped that the opinion polling showed the vote was going to be close.

For political parties the task would seem to be to figure out how to offer real change. No easy solution there, no quick fix. But democracy has never benefited from easy solutions and quick fixes.

This is a debate (which is also great for democracy)

These are not the only initiatives that might help improve turnout. Better information from parties, removing confusion of the different voting systems by settling on one that maximises the impact of that vote, allowing polling place voting over a number of days and in more places, are all other areas that could improve participation.

Ultimately, it is debates like this that helps to improve participation. For the Scottish Government to seek citizens’ views, allowing both simple yes/no answers to proposals but also giving space for providing evidence and wider commentary are all very welcome.

We hope you take a few minutes to answer the consultation before it closes on Monday 12 March. By engaging in the debate about democracy in Scotland, we are actively improving it.


photo courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald via fickr under Creative Commons.