Confused about the local elections? Let me explain

Mat elections.pngALL set for the council elections? We’re now less than three weeks away from the big day, so the candidates will be stepping up their campaigns, pounding the pavement and turning on the charm.

But if they knocked on your door, would you know who they were? You might know which party you plan to back, but do you know which of their candidates – if any – are standing in your area?

If you don’t, I suggest you temporarily set aside any aversion you have to the BBC and look up “Scottish local elections 2017”, at the end of which is a handy collection of links to every council’s candidate lists. I’d suggest you do this because the councils themselves aren’t making it easy for you to access the information you need.

Half a dozen of their websites don’t even feature the word “election” on their home pages. Argyll and Bute Council is more interested in telling you how to borrow an e-book or go swimming than exercise your franchise, while Dundee City Council is preoccupied with the plight of ground-nesting birds and the task of improving its own website (my tip: sort out the search facilities so “election” doesn’t bring up a page of old links with no relevance to May 4).

So the folks at the BBC have saved you a bit of clicking, but collating candidate lists only solves half – or perhaps only a third – of the problem.

Are you sure where you live? I’m not suggesting you’re vague about your own home address, but it’s possible your ward has changed. In fact it’s quite likely – 25 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have made boundary changes in the last six months, so it would be risky to assume your postcode is unaffected. The easiest way to check is by looking at your polling card, which will also tell you how many councillors are being elected to your ward. That’s assuming you haven’t mislaid it since it fluttered through your letterbox a few weeks ago.

We live in a digital age, but our democratic system is miles behind when it comes to smartphone-optimised browsing. While a few local authorities are ensuring their residents are just one or two clicks away from the details they need, most require a fair bit of searching followed by the downloading of a PDF. East Lothian Council, by contrast, is not only providing easy-to-find candidate lists but also highlighting the boundary changes and directing voters to examine ward maps. This should be the rule, not the exception. There’s no point trying to impress upon people that local elections matter if councils themselves are sending a clear message that they don’t. The phrase “Notice of Poll” simply doesn’t mean anything to most people, whereas “List of candidates” does. Communicating this stuff much more clearly is hardly rocket science.

This all matters because turnouts for local elections are always dispiritingly low. The showing of 39 per cent in 2012 (a drop of 13 percentage points compared to 2007) has been attributed to the decoupling of local and Scottish Parliament elections – in other words, it suggests people only bothered casting votes for councillors because they were already at a polling station and it took them an extra two minutes.

But separating the two polls helps to clarify that our local elections use a different voting system – single transferable vote (STV) – that allows candidates to be ranked in order of preference. Here, again, our councils have not been great at letting people know what’s what. In 2012 North Lanarkshire Council was forced to re-issue 26,000 postal voting packs after it was pointed out they’d shown a ballot paper with an “X” marked, instead of a number.

STV is often portrayed as fiendishly complicated, but from a voter’s perspective it really isn’t. Sure, there are videos online explaining exactly how Daffy Duck might end up pipping Scooby Doo to fourth place, but all you really need to know is that every preference ranking potentially matters.

Scottish voters have demonstrated that they understand how the system works, with analysis showing more than 80 per cent expressed both first and second preferences last time around. So far, so encouraging, but there’s evidence to suggest some might not all be doing their homework before entering the polling both: candidates higher up on the ballot get more votes than those lower down, and it’s a statistically significant difference, not a coincidence.

This “alphabetic bias” affects all kinds of elections, not just those using STV, but it’s tempting to conclude that some party-loyal voters may simply be going down the list marking “1, 2, 3…” against their party’s candidates. Research by Professors John Curtice and Michael Marsh after the 2007 election found that just 22 per cent of voters in Scotland cast only one preference, but more than 40 per cent voted for only one party. It would be a shame if a candidate with lots to offer missed out on a seat simply because he was a McDonald rather than a Campbell, or she was a Smith rather than a Jones.

Being a councillor is demanding work that goes far beyond turning up to vote in line with a party manifesto – so those who care about their local communities should scrutinise the people, not just the parties, before polling day comes around.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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