Adrian Kavanagh, 23rd May 2019
This year, local, European and referendum elections are taking place on Friday 24th May (TOMORROW!!!), while voters in Cork City, Waterford and Limerick also get to vote on a plebiscite on whether they will have a directly elected mayor for those local authorities. The results of these contests will be determined by many factors – some of these being local, some being national and some even having a European focus – but voter turnout levels on the day will also have a major bearing. Voting matters and – in this post – I will discuss why.
Voter turnout, or voter participation, relates to the percentage of people (measured in Ireland in reference to the number of people on electoral register) that turn out to vote in a given election. While there was some focus on instances of very low turnout levels at different election contests during the 2000s (such as the Children’s Referendum and the Meath East by-election), the trend nationally across that decade was one of improving turnout levels at general and local elections, especially in relation to the very low voter turnout levels recorded in the 1999 Local and European elections and the 2002 General Election. However, turnout levels again declined at the 2014 Local Elections, as well as the 2016 General Election, and there is a very real danger that the national turnout level could fall below 50% for Friday’s electoral contests. Moreover, there are still some areas and some social/demographic groups that tend to be associated with notably lower than average voter turnout levels in Ireland. If the main support base of a political party or candidate is reliant on a low turnout area or group, then they may well lose out on a significant number of potential votes because of this.
Areas that tend to be associated with higher than average turnout levels in Ireland include the more rural areas, areas with high levels of residential stability, areas with high levels of owner occupancy, areas with high proportions of middle class people and areas with high proportions of older people. By contrast, lower voter turnout levels tend to be associated with urban areas, areas with high levels of residential mobility, working class communities and younger people. As a result, inner city areas, and particularly the Dublin Inner City – with higher levels of residential mobility, social deprivation and younger people – tend to have the very lowest turnout rates when it comes to Irish elections. If a local election constituency covers a number of different social areas, the results in that constituency may well be skewed by the varying turnout propensities of the different social groups concerned. If an urban constituency contains a number of working class areas and a number of middle class areas, for instance, the middle class areas may prove to have more “political clout” if it turns out that turnout levels in the working class areas are decidedly lower than in the rest of that constituency.
The same trend might be observed in a number of the more rural local election constituencies. From the 2014 contest onwards, boundary changes, linked to overall reduction in County Council seats levels in many rural counties, have resulted in the enlargement of a number of constituencies, which were previously focused solely/mainly on a large town or even part of a City (as in the case of the cities of Limerick and Waterford), to include parts of the rural hinterlands of these urban areas. In relation to these constituencies, the expectation would be that voter turnout levels in the town/city area will be significantly lower on May 24th than in other, more rural, parts of these electoral areas, meaning that candidates based in these rural areas could potentially be advantaged as a result.
More “accidental” factors, such as not being able to vote due to illness/absence on polling day, not being on the electoral register or difficulties in locating/getting to a polling station, can push down voter turnout levels. But more “deliberate” causes of non-voting are significant too, such as voter apathy or feelings of anger/power in relation to the political system. Such behaviour is counter-productive and only serves to benefit the political system/politicians that these non-voters are angry/frustrated with.
People who do not like what’s happening in Irish politics may well opt not to turn out and vote. They feel that they are registering a protest by doing so. But they’re not.
The irony is that their decision not to vote will actually help to maintain the political system that they are frustrated with, as it is all too easy for the system/politicians to ignore the issues/concerns of people who choose not to vote.
And the problems in our political system feeds on this apathy and thrives on it: it’s no accident at all that the seeds of our present political and economic crisis were sown in the low turnout elections of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Don’t make excuses and say that your vote does not matter. It does. It is the only opportunity that ordinary people in the state gets (every 2/3 years at general and local/European elections) to send a message, and have a say, on the decisions that shape their lives at the local, national and European levels.
And – especially in local election contests – there is a not-totally-unlikely chance that an individual vote could determine who wins seats in certain electoral areas. Remember, there were zero votes between the last two remaining candidates in the Borris in Ossory constituency in the 1999 Local Elections! So in local election contests, where there are smaller numbers of voters involved than in a general election or especially a European election contest, a number of the final seats being decided in different constituencies, or electoral areas, could well be decided on the basis of a handful of votes. And possibly even just one vote! Your own individual vote could well decide who wins the last seat in your local election constituency (especially if you remember to use all of your preferences!).
If large enough numbers of voters from different groups/areas opt to instead protest by voting on Election Day, then the political system/politicians will have to respond to this/change out of sheer survival instincts alone! (And this same rule, of course, applies to people who may be satisfied/content with the current state of politics/the political system and who opt not to vote out of a sense of complacency.)
Ultimately voting is the only way in which you can ensure that you and your community is heard by the political system and the only way in which you can bring about change in Irish politics.