This is the text of a short article published in this week’s LGC
The recent experience of people “denied a vote” is a potent example in the ongoing debates about “behaviour change” and the responsibilities as well as the rights of citizens within their community and the state. There is something absolute about the right to vote that makes it a useful example to think with. Is it such a right that we should have contingency plans for the entire UK electorate to pop in at 2150 on the way to the pub? And if we say no, then we need behaviour change, a fair way of rationing, or both.
Economists talk about rationing resources by money (through differential pricing) or through time (eg road congestion) and sometimes the two overlap, for example with toll roads offering a way of turning money into time savings for those that wish to choose it. I suspect that even the “easyest” of councils would draw the line at expedited voting for a fee, though!
If I join the ticket queue at a railway station so late that I miss my train, the people I blame are firstly those in the queue making transactions they could get at a machine, secondly myself for being late and only thirdly the rail company – provided the staff seem to be working hard to get through the queue. It will be interesting to see how much citizen frustration is directed at people who slowed things down by not bringing their polling cards. We seem to default to blame of the public service, and some of the behaviour change debate is about directing constructive blame back at ourselves – tricky!
We will probably discover that some mistakes were made by returning officers and their staff, but we may also find solutions within differences of practice, just as we do from the plurality of local government more generally. Some polling stations, it seems, gave priority to those who had their polling cards and so could be processed faster, thus maximising the number of actual votes, and a reasonably grown-up engagement with the electorate next time around will probably involve sharing information – polls must close at 10pm, you will be given priority if you bring this card, please come early to minimise the risk of missing your vote, or get a postal vote. It may be that the folk-memory of people denied a vote through late arrival may actually resolve the problem anyway.
I shall be fascinated to see whether this issue is resolved in a way that gets to a more grown-up, solution between the electorate and the polling process, with local lessons learnt where necessary, or whether we get a gold-plated, nationally-imposed solution which puts even less responsibility on the citizen, and disempowers the locality.