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The policy to conduct national and provincial elections simultaneously to boost voter turnout in local elections

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Election in Solomon Islands.
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By Mose Saitala*

In preparation for elections, voters ought to be informed of changes to be introduced in the administration and conduct of elections. The goal is to spring no surprises and, at the same time, maintain people’s confidence in the election process. Surprises create doubts and scepticism, detrimental to people’s trust in how we deliver public service, including elections.

 

Introduction

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The Solomon Islands Electoral Commission (SIEC) has already prioritised the conduct of the national and provincial elections simultaneously in the next National General Elections (NGE). That policy is one of the electoral reform priorities in the Electoral Reform Strategic Framework (2019-2023) SIEC endorsed in 2019. The Government supported SIEC’s decision and the ‘greenlight’ given to implement the change in the next NGE.

There were two significant factors that influenced the policy choice of conducting national and provincial elections simultaneously. First, it would reduce the cost of an election because two elections collapsed into one. Second, it will significantly lift voter turnout, especially for provincial elections. It is well understood that savings will accrue to the Consolidated Fund when the national and provincial elections are conducted as one election. But it has yet to be widely understood why voter turnout matters. This article focused on why voter turnout matters and the experience worldwide with enhancing mechanisms to maximise voter turnouts.

Ever since independence, national elections and provincial elections have been conducted independently of each other. There is no secret that national poll voter turnouts have hovered around 85%. In comparison, provincial elections were much less at about 50% or lesser. The voter turnout in the 2019 NGE was 86%. It was a conscious choice to try and lift local turnout to be on par with national election turnouts. SIEC trialled this method in the by-election for East Makira in late 2019, coinciding with provincial elections. The result was as expected; for the first time, voter turnout at a provincial election (at least in the East Makira wards) equalled voter turnout for the parliamentary by-election. But why does voter turnout matter even at the local government level?

The Connection between Decentralisation and Local Election

Decentralisation is being implemented globally by both unitary and federal governments. Decentralisation finds favour with many democracies because it brings the Government closer to the people to promote greater participation and active citizenship no matter how far-flung you live in the country. People’s active participation in the democratic and political process and provincial governments’ readiness to respond to peoples’ needs and aspirations should lead to sustainable improvement in citizens’ well-being. That noble theorem normally underpinned the purpose of a provincial/local government. In other words, the decentralisation of mandate and authorities to provincial governments would typically be expected to enable democratic local decision-making and action by and on behalf of communities. At the same time, decentralisation will promote communities’ social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being, now and in the future.

The presumption under that noble theorem was that all citizens would participate fully and optimally in the political process. Thus, their needs and aspirations are integrated into the policy-making process. Those priority needs will form the basis of local planning, which is then incorporated into regional and national plans. Integrated planning allows citizens’ well-being to be optimised and sustainably improved over time when local and national priorities are neatly dovetailed. [A process the national Government has already begun to do by way of its provincial government institutional strengthening program].

Therefore, people must fully participate in the political process at the provincial level, so they are behind their provincial Governments in determining their development priorities.

One of the common problems found in many democratic countries pursuing decentralisation was the problem of paternalism. It is difficult to stop this problem because it is dependent on the policy position of the Government of the day. Paternalism involves acts usually intended to limit the authority of the provincial Government, which the latter regards as a hindrance to the delivery of its mandate. This problem could be mitigated when citizens participate fully in provincial elections. Higher voter turnout increases accountability, and provincial governments are more likely to work hard to ensure the national Government accommodates their priorities. Likewise, the national Government would typically be more sensitive to provincial government priorities when they know that citizens fully participated in their provincial political process and in determining their development priorities.

It is important to remember that all over the world, local election turnouts are already low, and that declining trend is continuing. For example, local elections in New Zealand have continuously declined over the last 25 years, with the 2022 local elections turnout dipping below 40% for the first time. The future trajectory in New Zealand is as gloomy as today if the problem prevails.

The persisting decline in voter turnout is a democratic dilemma that requires our immediate attention. A solution to that dilemma must support helping the Ministry of Provincial Government and Institutional Strengthening to build up capacity in provincial governments. One of the obvious ways to do this is by maximising voter turnout and encouraging citizens to participate fully in provincial elections. The following sections hereafter investigate ways of maximising voter turnout.

Alternatives to Maximizing Voter Turnout

A decision has already been made to maximise voter turnout in local elections by concurrently conducting the national and provincial elections on the same day. It would be informative to learn how that preferred policy choice holds up among the possible alternatives available.

The following are four possible institutionalism mechanism reforms amenable to political engineering that were considered for maximising voter turnout, especially in local elections. Other factors like voter education are only potent and effective when complementing the best institutional mechanism implemented to maximise voter turnout.

  1. Proportional Representative (PR) voting system

Compared with other electoral systems, it has been cited by many election studies that the PR voting system increases voter turnout. For example, regression analysis of turnouts in 509 national elections in 20 countries found that using the PR voting system consistently corresponds with high voter turnout. The reasons are that voters have more choices (vote for the candidate and the party vote), there is less of a wasted-vote problem, and there is a strong incentive for political parties to mobilise voters from weak areas to go and vote (incited by the option for a voter to cast his/her vote for a party).

But that evidence is only for national elections. There needs to be more evidence that the PR system could raise voter turnouts in a local election. Researchers had confirmed that the turnout was meagre in 11 of 12 European countries that used the PR system for European Parliament elections. European countries regard European Parliament elections as a second election equivalent to provincial elections in the Solomon Islands. Other studies for the United States were inconclusive that the PR system would raise voter turnout in local elections in the United States.

Implementing any form of the PR system for national or local elections in the Solomon Islands is infeasible. The absence of a well-established and disciplined party system in the country makes it impractical to design a PR election system. The PR system works best when there are few or no independent candidates, other than party candidates, contesting local elections. It will indeed not work when ‘party-hopping’ cannot be prevented. At present political parties do not even take local elections seriously compared to their activities in mobilising voters during national elections. Also, there needs to be more convincing evidence that the PR system will increase voter turnout in local elections.

  1. Short Election Cycle – Depress Voter Turnout

There is consensus that too many elections within a short period can depress turnout. It has been demonstrated in the United States that primaries, state-wide elections for the legislature, federal congressional elections, and presidential elections (where citizens are required to go to the poll at an average of two to three times per year), affect voter turnout. The turnout in federal elections in the United States has only crept up and passed the 60% mark only five times since 1932. It fluctuated between 50% and 60% from 1932 to 2020. Low turnout in Switzerland is also believed to be partially caused by the fact that voters have to go to the poll six to seven days per year.

The tendency not to turn up to vote could be explained by considering the ‘opportunity cost’ of going to the poll, given the minuscule chance of one vote affecting the outcome of an election. The perceived return of one’s vote in influencing the result of an election is close to zero, yet it costs time and energy to vote. The cost of voting could increase a great deal if there are too many elections to attend in a relatively short period. Apathy for an election could increase when a voter’s cost to do election increases.

Fortunately, the experience of parliamentary democracies from around the world suggested that, on average, a four-year term of Parliament is considered sufficient. It is not too long nor too short a life span for an election cycle. In other words, the current life span of four years for Parliament and Provincial Assemblies is not a contributing factor to low voter turnout.

  1. Concurrent Elections – National and Local Elections are Simultaneously Conducted

There have been numerous studies on the conduct of simultaneous elections and their relationship to voter turnout. They have all overwhelmingly concluded that when local and national elections are conducted simultaneously, voter turnout increases significantly, at least for local elections.

Oskar Niedermayer, in 1990, demonstrated in his analysis of elections to the European Parliament that where the national and European Parliament elections are conducted simultaneously, the voter turnout for European Parliament elections increased significantly. Table 1 demonstrates Niedermayer’s finding that the conduct of national and Euro elections concurrently has consistently influenced the high voter turnout for elections to the European Parliament in 1984 and 1989.

Table 1: Results of multiple regression 1984 and 1989 on elections to the European Parliament

Variables Standardized partial regression coefficients

Beta

  1984 1989
Compulsory voting 0.77 0.75
Coincidental of National & Euro-Elections 0.30 0.18
Pro-European attitudes 0.19 0.17
Proportion of variation in turnout explained by the three variables (R2)  

0.85

 

0.84

Source: replicated from Niedermayer (1990)

 

There were challenges we foresaw if this option is implemented. For example, the life span of four years for both legislatures could be synced for double dissolutions for simultaneous elections. But like any other parliamentary democracy, there is nothing to stop the Government from dissolving Parliament earlier than its four-year life. If this happens, the life span of Parliament would no longer be in sync with the life span of Provincial Assemblies. Repeated early dissolutions of Provincial Assemblies to coincide with Parliament dissolution (for simultaneous elections) could ignite the argument that provincial governments are not necessarily functioning independently of the national Government as intended by the decentralisation process.

We conclude that Parliament is unlikely to dissolve itself earlier than its mandatory dissolution date. The Parliament, since independence, has never ended its life earlier than its four-year life. Incidences of political instability in the past involved only change to the ruling Government but never progressed to shorten the four-year life of Parliament. Past and present MPs appeared steadfastly risk-averse to shortening Parliament’s four-year life.

  1. Compulsory Voting

Australia, Italy, Greece, Belgium, and Luxembourg have implemented mandatory voting, consistently resulting in high voter turnout at national and local elections.

Many scholars have concluded that mandatory voting, with a coercive measure, is especially effective in what would otherwise be a very low-turnout situation. Australia, for example, had a voter turnout of only 55% before compulsory voting was introduced in 1922. In the first election after 1922, with the mandatory election requirement, Australia recorded a turnout of 91% – a boost of 36%. Since then, Australia has consistently recorded high voter turnout averaging 94.61%.

Scholars have confirmed that compulsory voting has the same effect when it comes to local elections. Belgium and Italy had very high turnouts in local elections and elections for the European Parliament with mandatory voting. In Belgium, for example, local elections recorded 90% under mandatory voting but dropped to 50% in 1995 when compulsory voting was removed. The empirical regression work by Niedermayer in Table 1 confirmed that among the variables influencing voter turnout in European elections, compulsory voting has the most robust relationship with voter turnout.

Table 1 also demonstrated that the proportion of variation in turnout explained by the three independent variables is very high at 85% and 84% in 1984 and 1989, respectively. However, that high turnout for European Parliament Election has nothing to do with the ‘Europeanness’ (or Pro-European Attitudes) of individual European states. The high turnout has nothing to do with the European Community. It is to do with the institutional mechanism of compulsory voting. The findings confirm that introducing compulsory voting will, on its own, raise voter turnouts, as in Australia, Belgium, and Italy.

 

The Best Alternative to Maximise Voter Turnout in Local Elections

The continuing decline of voter turnout in local elections is a worrying trend. Arresting that trend requires consideration of policies that would maximise voter turnout. The preceding discussion has suggested that simultaneous elections and mandatory voting are the most potent and effective institutional mechanisms to raise voter turnout immediately.

Compulsory voting has been effective because the Electoral law makes voting mandatory, which means a registered voter must attend to voting at his/her designated polling station within the date and the hours specified. A voter who fails to comply with that statutory directive will be fined, and if that fine is not paid on time, it will grow with every day it remains outstanding. The offender could eventually be prosecuted if the unpaid fine reaches a certain amount.

There are other properties of Mandatory Voting that endear it to proponents of democracy.

First, it will stop many citizens from free-riding – citizens who take advantage of the benefit of democracy without contributing to it. Justice Malcolm Feely of the United States argued that the general remedy for collective-action problems (by those who do not want to vote) is to counteract free riding using legal sanctions and enforcement.

Second, voting is a civic duty comparable to other citizens’ responsibilities, like paying taxes, jury duty, or compulsory education.

Third, it consistently generates high voter turnout, making national and lower legislatures more representatives of the people and reflecting the electorates’ will more accurately, thus validating the fact that the electorates’ views be considered in policy-making processes and their implementation.

Fourth, it will reduce the role of money in politics and allow candidates to concentrate on their campaigns because it is unnecessary to spend money to get voters to the poll.

Fifth, mandatory voting will remove voter apathy. The case of Australia is a powerful example. It imposes only a fine of A$20 for not voting, which can be considered insignificant. However, its mandatory requirement for voting has consistently produced voter turnout of at least 90% since the first election with compulsory voting in 1925.

Sixth, it will complement simultaneous elections (when they are implemented together) by forcing all voters to vote in both elections (national and provincial) on election day, thus guaranteeing same voter turnout for both national and provincial elections.

Conclusion

We have established that simultaneous elections and the enforcement of mandatory or compulsory voting are the two most potent and effective policy options to raise voter turnouts in national and provincial elections. SIEC has already trialled simultaneous elections, which increases the turnout level in local elections to that of national elections.

Mandatory voting is a new concept to the country, and many might find it intimidating because of its coercive measure. While some may criticise compulsory voting as infringing on our liberty right, it is essential to be reminded that our right to freedom is a qualifying right that can be limited to a degree if that measure is in the public interest and it is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. The lesson from Australia’s mandatory voting regime suggests that imposing a minimal fine (e.g., SBD5 or 10) for failing to vote ‘without an acceptable excuse’ is sufficient to entice voters to vote in droves.

The persisting low voter turnout in local elections justifies implementing all voter-participation-enhancing devices. We have demonstrated that increased voter turnout will increase government accountability and the elected body’s legitimacy. It will also provide the impetus for improvement in citizens’ well-being consistently.

We can increase voter turnout by conducting national and provincial elections simultaneously. We can achieve the same goal more sustainably by implementing mandatory or compulsory voting. We can also combine the implementation of the two voter-participation-enhancing devices to reap the full benefits offered by the two voting methods… but that is a dream we hope we can live long enough to witness when implemented!

*Saitala was a former Chief Electoral Commissioner of the SIEC and works for SIEC.

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