Jess Blair examines the impact of the early vote pilot rolled out during the May elections in Wales.
In May’s local elections, four areas in Wales trialled a different way of voting – allowing people to cast their vote before election day.
In addition to polling stations being open on the Thursday 5 May election day, there were a range of places where people could cast their vote early – either the previous weekend or on the Tuesday or Wednesday before election day.
Those four places each trialled this in a slightly different way:
In Blaenau Gwent the council opened the Ebbw Vale Learning Zone as an advanced polling station for everyone in the county on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the election, including eligible students studying there.
In Bridgend over 20 polling stations in low turnout wards were open for advance voting on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the election. A new polling station was also created in Cynffig Comprehensive School where eligible students could cast their vote on the Tuesday before the election.
In Caerphilly any eligible resident of the county could vote in the Council headquarters in Ystrad Mynach on the weekend before the election.
Similarly in Torfaen the council offices at Pontypool were open the weekend before the election for any resident to cast their vote.
This week the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of these pilots was published, reviewing how these trials went.
While this was only a first, and relatively small trial, the early indications are that the pilots went well.
Over three-quarters (77%) said they would be very likely to vote early again if there was an opportunity to do so
For many, whether the trials could work was a real test, with the advanced voting and the ability for residents of anywhere in the authority to vote in a polling station outside their ward posing a challenge to administrators. This required the introduction of digital registers, an online system where polling station staff could tick off who had turned out to vote in advance.
There were also questions over whether voters would find the experience accessible but the report found no notable issues on the advance voting days or on Thursday 5 May and that the voters who did take part were satisfied with their experience.
The commission surveyed voters who had turned out in advance, and although the sample size was small, over three-quarters (77%) said they would be very likely to vote early again if there was an opportunity to do so and a further 15% said they would be quite likely to take advantage of early voting in future.
Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.
These were only small and localised pilots and, as expected, the turnout was relatively low. Indeed the Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, responded to the evaluation on Tuesday in a written statement, saying “As expected, the pilots did not increase turnout dramatically but demonstrated that flexible and more convenient ways of voting can be provided securely and with voters’ confidence”.
In spite of this low turnout, there are a couple of promising results within the evaluation. In areas where a single polling station was open for advanced voting, 0.2%-0.3% of registered voters cast their votes in advance. But in Bridgend, where over 20 polling stations in low turnout wards were open, turnout was 5 times this amount at 1.5%.
There are also positive signs from Bridgend with a polling station open for the first time in a comprehensive school for eligible students to vote. This follows the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds in Wales. In that school 18% of eligible voters cast their vote early.
We have to accept that there is no magic bullet to low turnout but that a range of measures will likely be needed.
ERS Cymru has long called for pilots on voting in different places and on different days and these four pilots demonstrate both the challenges and opportunities of doing democracy a little bit differently. While small, they have shown that the model can work logistically and give us an indication of the challenges in staffing and resources that will need to be met.
We have to accept that there is no magic bullet to low turnout but that a range of measures will likely be needed. Making voting more accessible has a part to play in that. The indication that a polling station in a school has had a higher turnout than expected is a promising one. With 16 and 17 year olds able to vote, we must endeavour to bring voting to young people directly. Voting is a habit and if we can reach young people in schools and make it easy for them to vote we can begin to create that habit.
In addition to making voting more accessible we need to be looking at removing other barriers, such as improving voter communications and introducing automatic registration for voters. It is notable that in Cynffig Comprehensive School a fifth of eligible voters said they were not registered.
Following the publication of the evaluation of the pilots the Counsel General Mick Antoniw has responded positively, saying “The learning from the pilots and the evaluation will be used to inform longer term improvements to the way people vote and to help reduce the democratic deficit. I look forward to consulting on our proposals in the coming months.” This consultation is to be welcomed and we hope that at the next Senedd and local elections in 2026 and 2027 advanced voting will be an option for all eligible voters.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.