Scottish Parliament election 2021: We must embrace bold new ideas to increase voter turnout – Scotsman comment

It may be that by May next year that the level of danger to life caused by Covid-19 will have been reduced to a level that allows the Scottish Parliament elections to go ahead in the usual manner.

An election official, wearing a biohazard suit for protection against Covid-19, collects a vote in a mobile ballot box from an elderly woman during the presidential elections in Moldova (Picture: Roveliu Buga/AP)
An election official, wearing a biohazard suit for protection against Covid-19, collects a vote in a mobile ballot box from an elderly woman during the presidential elections in Moldova (Picture: Roveliu Buga/AP)

However, given that just 55.6 per cent of an electorate of just under 4.1 million people actually voted in the 2016 ballot, the idea of ‘building back better’ should appeal to all those keen to enhance participation in our democracy.

Low turnout was a key factor in Donald Trump’s 2016 election win: he received just under 63 million votes of the 245 million available but, because turnout was also coincidentally about 55.7 per cent, this enabled him to win. It remains an important fact to remember that 75 per cent of Americans did not vote for Trump in 2016 and also that support from 25 per cent was enough to put him in the White House. In the 2020 US election, turnout soared to 66.9 per cent – the highest in 120 years – and, thankfully, he was the loser.

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Many states in the US encouraged people to vote by mail, to avoid the need to go to polling stations in person, thereby lowering the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus. People were also able to cast their ballot well in advance of polling day itself.

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These are strategies that Scotland should be considering, not just as an anti-coronavirus measure – we all hope vaccines will have helped to return life to something much closer to normal by May – but in order to increase turnout.

The Scottish government has been looking at Covid-related election measures taken in New Zealand and Singapore and, in a new Bill, it has laid out legislation that could see an all-postal ballot, voting over more than a day, and the delay of the election by up to six months.

They also examined a system used in New Zealand, known as “takeway voting”, in which an authorised person takes voting slips from the polling station to a person who is unable to travel because of ill-health or disability, for example, and then returns them after the vote is cast, although this was not included in the Bill.

Election turnout in Scotland has fallen perilously low. Were it to slip below 50 per cent, questions would be raised about the mandate of any government elected.

Given the stakes, next May’s vote is likely to attract more interest than last time, with the SNP and Scottish Greens hoping to secure a majority of MSPs in favour of a second independence referendum.

However, if we are to call ourselves true democrats, we should endeavour to make turnout as high as possible.

Democratic countries should make it easy to vote and recognise that practical problems we can all face on any given day sometimes get in the way.

The ideas that an election must be held on one day and that voting in person is the default way of casting your ballot are out-dated and unnecessary. How many people have been disenfranchised by a broken-down car, an unexpected birth or a crisis at the office?

The higher the turnout, the closer the election result will be to the true ‘will of the people’. It’s time for an election revolution.

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