The Welsh Voter Problem

Ahead of the local elections, Maddy Dhesi calls for removing the barriers that contribute to low voter turnout in Wales.

2020 saw a fresh wave of democracy in Wales. I remember working during the pandemic and feeling as if my one use as a Politics student had been snatched from me as I listened to a customer explain to another that the social distancing rules were decided by Vaughan Gething rather than Matt Hancock. The names of Welsh Government ministers were all of a sudden common knowledge and Welsh devolution understood on a personal level. 

Participatory democracy also rose in Wales in 2020, despite Covid. Young people crowded the Senedd steps demanding fairer exam results, climate protests increased, and in June 2020, thousands across Wales organised protests and marches to support Black Lives Matter.

But even with this reinvigoration, turnout in the 2021 Senedd election rose by a mere 1.2%. And whilst voting is by no means the only way for people to influence decisions, it is one of the easiest. Will the next set of elections on 5th May see a larger boost in turnout?

Last May, the Senedd election narrowly scraped the highest turnout of all Senedd elections with 46.8%, but in comparison, the Holyrood election held at the same time hit a 63.2% high.

May’s local elections have the chance to be historical. They’ll be the first local elections under the newly extended franchise of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. But even with the votes at 16 and residency-based voting rights in the mix, it is unlikely these policies will have any significant impact on the crux of one of the biggest problems with Welsh democracy: the reality that Welsh voters just aren’t voting.

Except for UK Parliament elections, the elections held in Wales suffer from severe levels of political disengagement. Last May, the Senedd election narrowly scraped the highest turnout of all Senedd elections with 46.8%, but in comparison, the Holyrood election held at the same time hit a 63.2% high. For both institutions, this is a notable peak, but why is Wales lagging behind?

As the 5th of May approaches, it’s easy to forget how difficult it is for voters who don’t fit into the box of ‘traditional British homeowner’ to participate in our democracy. The system tolerates rather than welcomes voters who don’t fit into this box, which is why there are lower rates of voter registration in marginalised communities.

Getting all young people to vote is important in stopping political disengagement from becoming a long term issue. So far, young people’s low turnout in elections shows that progress is slow – only 35,000 of the 60,000 newly enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds were registered to vote in last May. This makes the lack of curriculum-based political education in Wales all the more perplexing. Votes at 16 was a step in the right direction, but we need to ensure that Welsh youth are equipped with the knowledge and tools to actually be voting.

Political education could somewhat mitigate the problem of non-citizen and student voters falling through the cracks and being unable to vote. May’s elections will be the first set of local elections that migrants will be able to vote in, enabling international students based in Wales to be able to vote as well. As a student myself, it was surprising to hear – especially in the face of growing voter suppression policies in the UK – how accommodating the voting rights for students in the UK are. In local elections, students are able to vote both at their home and university addresses, providing they fall under separate council areas. But the benefits of these rights were stagnated by the absence of information about our voting rights out there and an obligation to reregister to vote with frequent address changes every academic year. The system seems to be wired against young people easily voting – never mind polling days happening on the same week (or day if you’re exceptionally unlucky) as national exams!

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The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 opened the door for a more inclusive democracy for Wales but, unfortunately, it is only by dismantling the barriers in front of the ballot box that we can truly achieve it. And one of the biggest barriers for PCC and devolved elections held in Wales – as we can see by the 20% gap in turnout between Senedd and UK Parliament elections – is the Westminster-centric media consumption in Wales. In the same way that political education is a necessity for voter engagement, a comprehensive Senedd-focused media is a necessity for increasing both regular and election time engagement with Senedd politics. 

So what is being done? Voting in local elections will not be a homogeneous experience this May, with several places in Wales trialling different ways of voting as proposed by the Counsel General. These changes include local authorities in Wales trialling automatic voter registration and polling booths in schools and supermarkets in a bid to extend voting accessibility. Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, and Torfaen councils are all trialling advanced voting so people won’t be restricted between 7am and 10pm on the 5th May for voting. These policies feel welcoming towards voters and completely at odds with the UK Government’s recently passed Elections Act which represents a growing problem in the UK – the demonisation of voters.

The first time I learnt about students’ voting rights wasn’t online or in university, it was from an MP saying students cast thousands of fraudulent votes every election. Not only is this untrue, but voter fraud is a repeated fallacy that is often purposefully aimed at marginalised groups who at the same time are least likely to be voting in the first place: a classic continuation of ensuring the ballot box is only suited for a certain type of voter. Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters are less likely to be registered to vote than White voters, and yet, the UK Government’s policy of voter ID (levied forwards by myths of voter fraud) will most grievously affect Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters. ID ownership is also less prevalent amongst those who cannot easily afford photo ID, such as homeless people, disabled people, trans and non-binary people, young people, and older people. All of these voters will have their right to vote made less accessible or restricted completely. Only those whose politics benefit from suppressing the voices of marginalised communities will benefit from this suppression. 

Introduced by the same act that rids Wales of our supplementary vote in PCC elections in favour of more First Past the Post, it seems likely that voter ID is part of a bigger picture of widespread voter suppression.

Voter ID will only be required in PCC and UK Parliament elections in Wales. Senedd and local elections will remain free of the policy due to the Welsh Government’s confirmation that they will not introduce ID. But this introduces a newer risk: if, like in 2021, a PCC (non-devolved) and Senedd (devolved) election happens on the same day and a voter does not bring ID there is a risk that they could be denied both votes. 

Nevertheless, voter ID adds a barrier in front of the ballot box. Worse, this barrier is completely avoidable – the risk of voter fraud is less likely than being struck by lightning. Introduced by the same act that rids Wales of our supplementary vote in PCC elections in favour of more First Past the Post, it seems likely that voter ID is part of a bigger picture of widespread voter suppression.

Welsh democracy seems to be approaching a crossroads, stuck between policies that are increasingly vilifying voters and policies that are trying to extend a hand to voters. Either way, perhaps one of these is a bit more likely to bump May’s turnout up than the other…

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Maddy Dhesi is a recent first time voter from North Wales who has been campaigning on the Elections Bill against voter ID and for residence based voting rights in England and Northern Ireland.

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