Turnout isn’t even a symptom, so let’s stop the hand wringing


We’re all worried about the decline in turnout, aren’t we? Politicians, academics and other worthies march up to Glenties every year to worry about our failing politics, and to self-flagellate about our failure to reform it.

And it’s not just us we’re worried about this year. With the results of the 2014 European elections we worry that other parts of Europe have gone bad. They’ve elected nationalists! Let’s forget that the vote for the racist nationalists, who I assume are the ones we don’t like, has gone down in many countries. Something must be done!

The standard analysis is that the Front National in France and Britain’s UKIP were elected because so many good people didn’t bother to vote. It’s probably true that low turnout inflates support for anti-EU parties. It is also likely that in general elections in these countries, when more people vote.

But do we really need to solve the ‘problem’ of low turnout?

First of all, the decision not to vote might be an expression of dissatisfaction with the government or the political system. A Fine Gael voter might abstain from voting in Dún Laoighaire in order to send a message to the government. He’ll vote for them again in the general election; he’s making a point.

Another voter might wish to abstain because she’s tired of politics and does not wish to engage in public affairs through conventional electoral politics.

If this is a problem it is a problem that there isn’t an adequate choice for voters in the political spectrum, or perhaps that those that do offer alternative voices are hopelessly divided. It is associated with the fact that many see conventional electoral politics as irrelevant – if even ‘democratic revolutions’ don’t change much, why bother vote?

The symptom of this problem is that people are disengaged from conventional politics. Turnout is just one indicator of that disengagement.

In the Irish Times David Farrell suggests confronting turnout head on. He makes a number of suggestions, such as introducing an electoral commission and making it easier to register to vote. These would be useful additions to our democratic architecture, but they are irrelevant to our evaluation of conventional politics.

Farrell makes an even more radical suggestion – introduce compulsory voting.

Compulsory voting works. Many more people vote in countries that force their citizens to turn out to vote than in those that don’t.

There are of obvious ideological objections. We should not be forced to do anything. In a free society it should be our choice whether to vote or not.

A less powerful objection might be that we will force people who are ignorant of public issues to vote, thus giving them a voice that isn’t as considered as those who would choose to vote regardless.

While the first objection should kill the idea of compulsory voting stone dead, we can disregard Farrell’s suggestion for another reason: Turnout is not the problem.

It’s not even the symptom of the problem. It’s just an indicator of the problem. Turnout allows us to measure disengagement, but forcing people to vote isn’t going to make them more engaged.

When we try to manipulate indicators directly we are committing a grave sin in public policy. In the 1970s Charles Goodhart coined (the modestly titled) Goodhart’s Law – when a measure becomes a target is ceases to be a good measure.

Policy makers are too often ignorant of Goodhart’s insight. We mix up indicators of policy problems with the problems themselves and try to tackle the indicator head on.

It was for this reason that introducing targets for waiting times in A&E failed in the UK. Hospital administrators told to reduce the waiting time to see clinical staff reacted by inventing ‘Hello nurses’. These greeted new patients when they came through the door. There was no clinical improvement, but waiting times tumbled.

It was this confusion of the indicator and the cause of a problem that led a minister for education to suggest that every child in the country be sent five books. The minister was reacting to research that indicated that children in houses with at least five books in them performed much better on reading tests. Happily the flaws in the minister’s logic were pointed out.

The conversations in Glenties aren’t wholly pointless; there is much wrong with our political system, and we should be open to introspection about our failings and willing to adapt. But we should start with understanding the problems. These relate to the capacity of our state to continue to deliver the improvements to people’s lives we saw in much of the second half of the 20th century. Then we can stop the endless handwringing about irrelevancies.

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