On 4th November, voters in the United States of America go to the polls to elect their 56th President. At the last election in 2004, voter turnout was 60.7%, the highest since 1968. Yet this is still a low figure for selecting somebody often described as being the most powerful person on the planet. This turnout occurs after an elaborate system of electoral primaries conducted by the two main political parties.
This year’s election was given added interest by the close and at times furious contest for the Democratic Party nomination. Hopefully this level of interest will be reflected in final voter participation when the choice is made between Barack Obama and John McCain.
When we consider the sacrifices made by so many people to secure our right to vote, it is disappointing to see declining electoral turnout across so many democracies and at all levels of government. We are sometimes told that this is to do with politicians having little real power. This argument can hardly be used for the American President but is plausible for councillors in Britain who have seen so much decision-making taken away from them by central government.
There is also the view that politicians are all the same and do not carry out their promises. On this point, I would say that all politicians should do their utmost to carry out what they have committed to do. Admittedly circumstances can change and the onset of a global recession does require changes to policy but elected politicians should never lose sight of what they have promised.
Thinking about local elections and looking beyond the lack of real political power and the credibility of politicians, there is a third dimension that can keep people away from the polls in our council elections. This is the complexity of the political system in local government.
In Crawley we are part of a two-tier system of local government with Crawley Borough Council providing local services and West Sussex County Council providing strategic services. Unless you are close to local government, it is entirely understandable not immediately knowing which authority provides which service.
We add to this complexity by having Crawley Council elected by thirds creating elections in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – with the County Council elections in 2009 before the cycle starts again. To make things even more confusing, we have Crawley Council electoral wards with two or three councillors in each so it is difficult to predict which councillor, if any, might be up for election in a given year. We also elect nine County Councillors from six electoral divisions – each with one or two councillors. Anything this difficult to explain succinctly on the doorstep is not really ideal.
Therefore the complexity of local government can be disempowering, almost disabling, for our electorate. It is in everyone’s interest to make it simpler.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
27th October 2008