Our response

SCVO welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation, and would like to contribute the following.

Introduction

SCVO begins its response to this consultation by expressing disappointment at the questions being raised in the consultation document. Given that, according to the Scottish Government’s introduction to the consultation, “This consultation is focused on how the quality of democracy in Scotland can be improved by encouraging wider engagement and participation in elections. […] This consultation is part of the continuing process to make voting more meaningful for Scotland’s people and communities”, it is disappointing that this consultation devotes only one question to the issue of disinclined voters. The lack of consideration of why people are ‘disinclined’ to vote is a mistake – listing their demographic traits is not enough.

As we have highlighted previously[i], voting in elections is a crucial part of a healthy democracy. However, Electoral Commission research shows that levels of non-registration are higher among younger age groups and among some members of black and minority ethnic communities than in other groups. Voter turnout in recent times in Scotland has been lower than 50%, leading to serious questions around representation and legitimacy. Turnout in less affluent, more deprived socio-economic areas is also far lower than that in affluent, white middle-class areas.

Furthermore, trust in politicians is a serious issue. As highlighted in the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey[ii], levels of trust in the Scottish Government, both to act in Scotland’s best interests and to make fair decisions, decreased between 2011 and 2013. The proportion of people in Scotland who thought that the Scottish Government was good at listening to people’s views before taking decisions also declined over this period.

If the Scottish Government is “committed to a strong Scottish Parliament, diverse local authorities and confident, proactive communities”, they and all politicians must acknowledge that they have failed to engage vast swathes of Scotland in formal politics, and must address this issue as well as addressing concerns around process. It is clear that however simple and accessible the process is, and no matter how the ballot paper is designed, unless people have a reason to vote and feel that politicians offer genuine choice and really do reflect their views, no one will turn out to vote.

Question responses

Through looking at specific examples, we here address some of the points in questions one and five, both of which focus on non-technical aspects of voting.

In terms of increasing participation and turnout, and engaging people who are disinclined to vote, two schemes – one in Ireland, and another in the USA – are informative.

A successful scheme from the USA

The USA has levels of non-participation amongst the poorest that are similar to those here, but since 2005, the organisation Nonprofit VOTE[iii] has been working across the USA to increase voter turnout and engagement.

Nonprofit VOTE runs as a national scheme that works with individual state-wide third sector organisations who in turn offer telephone and resource support to smaller organisations across the state: helping them to hold hustings and events; register people they are in contact with through their day to day work; and talk to service users, volunteers and clients about the positive reasons for voting.

They have had considerable success, with recent research by Nonprofit VOTE showing that “voter turnout of nonprofit voters [voters encouraged to vote or register by nonprofits whose services they access] compared to all registered voters was 18 points higher for Latino voters (72% vs. 54%), 15 points higher for voters under 30 years old (68% vs. 53%), and 15 points higher for voters with household incomes under $25,000 (68% vs. 53%)”[iv].

A successful scheme from Ireland

In Ireland, an ‘Active Citizenship Voter Education programme’ is run by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice[v]. This involves a three-step process exploring with people in workshops the reasons to vote, how to register and how to vote; considers ways in which to take an informed stance on important issues; and presents an approach to choosing candidates on an informed basis.

Over 600 community groups have taken part in the programme, and a National Active Citizenship Network has been established with representatives in all counties in Ireland. The success of the programme and the positive contribution it has made to the democratic process in Ireland is evident by the almost 5 per cent increase in voter turnout in Ireland’s General Election in 2007. In earlier years, voting trends increased by between 12% and 31% in 6 areas where the programme was running.

The programme continues to develop: there are now ‘After the Elections’ workshops throughout the country, acting as a complimentary addition to the original programme. This new programme equips participants with the tools to lobby politicians to bring about change and reinforces the point that it is people’s voices and their vote that can be the real catalyst for change.

Politicians and political parties are no longer sufficient by themselves to engage people directly in voting. We need to explore schemes such as those above which work through third sector and community-based organisations, and we call on the Government to seriously consider providing support for programmes that reach into communities and increase voter participation.

Conclusion

As we said in our introduction, if the Scottish Government is “committed to a strong Scottish Parliament, diverse local authorities and confident, proactive communities”, they and all politicians must acknowledge that they are failing to engage vast swathes of Scotland in formal politics, and must act to remedy this. The third sector in other countries have played their part in encouraging people to turn out to vote – and are also doing so here: Bite the Ballot, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, NUS Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament are focussing on young people and students; Action for Churches in Scotland have carried out work within their parishes; the Scottish Refugee Council, SAMH, NIDOS and Environment LINK have all carried out work around the Referendum focussing on the issues important to their members; and SCVO, in partnership with the Daily Record and STUC are running a series of voter engagement articles over the coming weeks.

But unless people have a reason to vote (either in the Referendum, local elections, or general elections) and feel that politicians offer genuine choice and really do reflect their views, we will continue to have dissatisfaction and under-engagement in the voting process. We therefore call on the Government to seriously consider providing support for programmes – such as those described above – that reach into communities and increase voter participation.

Engaging our currently disengaged potential voters will not only ensure that the voices of the seldom heard are listened to: according to the American Journal Nonprofit Quarterly, “people who register and vote are more likely to talk to their neighbors, meet with local officials, and engage in other civic actions. Studies show that states with higher voting levels have, among other attributes, higher levels of self-reported health, lower ex-offender recidivism rates, and even lower unemployment”[vi]. So improved voter engagement, if we get it right as a nation, could have a dramatic effect on our society. We must act to make this happen.

Contact

Jenny Bloomfield
Policy Officer

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
Mansfield Traquair Centre
15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB
Direct Dial: 0131 474 8001
Mobile Phone: 07557 131 982
Web: www.scvo.org.uk
Twitter: @scvotweet

About us

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is the national body representing the third sector.There are over 45,000 voluntary organisations in Scotland involving around 138,000 paid staff and approximately 1.2 million volunteers. The sector manages an income of £4.5 billion.

SCVO works in partnership with the third sector in Scotland to advance our shared values and interests. We have over 1400 members who range from individuals and grassroots groups, to Scotland-wide organisations and intermediary bodies.

As the only inclusive representative umbrella organisation for the sector SCVO:

  • has the largest Scotland-wide membership from the sector – our 1400 members include charities, community groups, social enterprises and voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes
  • our governance and membership structures are democratic and accountable – with an elected board and policy committee from the sector, we are managed by the sector, for the sector
  • brings together organisations and networks connecting across the whole of Scotland

SCVO works to support people to take voluntary action to help themselves and others, and to bring about social change. Our policy is determined by a policy committee elected by our members.[vii]

Further details about SCVO can be found at www.scvo.org.uk.

References

Scottish Voluntary Sector Statistics 2012, SCVO

http://www.scvo.org.uk/about-the-sector/sector-stats


[ii] Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013: core module – attitudes to government, the economy, health and social care services, and social capital in Scotland.

[iii] For more about Nonprofit VOTE, see http://www.nonprofitvote.org/.

[iv] Can Non-profits increase voting among their clients, constituents and staff? An evaluation of the track the vote programme, Part 1,2013. Seehttps://storage.googleapis.com/scvo-cms/documents/2013/07/can-nonprofits-increase-voting.pdf.

[v] For more about the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice’s Active Citizenship Voter Education programme, see http://www.vote.ie/.

[vii] SCVO’s Policy Committee has 24 members elected by SCVO’s member organisations who then co-opt up to eight more members primarily to reflect fields of interest which are not otherwise represented. It also includes two ex officio members, the SCVO Convener and Vice Convener.