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Too much democracy? Apathy triumphs as UK voters shun latest election

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

A voter enters a polling station in Hambleden, southern England, on Thursday as the public elected 41 police and crime commissioners.

LONDON -- Democracy is a valuable commodity; revolutions are fought to win it, lives are lost defending it, constitutions are written to enshrine it and billions of dollars are spent making it mean something. However, an initiative in Britain to extend the scope of democracy has met with an emphatic thumbs-down by the electorate, raising questions about how the nation has its say in who-runs-what.

On Thursday, voters in England and Wales, with the exception of London, had the opportunity to elect the first-ever Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). These new regional officials, paid upwards of $150,000 a year, have the power to set policing budgets, fix priorities and hire and fire chief constables -- the most senior officers in the force.

But in the end, most people didn’t bother to vote.

Fewer than one-in-six eligible voters cast their ballots, with none of the regions achieving even a 20 per cent turn-out, according to data compiled by the Electoral Reform Society. One polling station in Wales failed to have even a single voter cross its threshold. Among those who did vote, the proportion of invalid ballots was three-times higher than normally seen at a parliamentary election. 

The turnout was so low that the Electoral Commission, the independent watchdog responsible for monitoring British elections, announced an inquiry into just what went wrong, describing voter apathy as “a concern for anyone who cares about democracy."

The PCC was the coalition government's latest policy to enable the public to become more closely involved in decision-making. Unlike the United States, Britain has no tradition of voting for positions such as sheriffs and school board officials. In recent years, successive U.K. governments have extended the reach of local democracy, first through national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and more recently by instigating directly elected mayors in major cities.

Perhaps the most noteworthy defeat was handed to John Prescott, who served as Tony Blair's deputy prime minister. He lost in his bid to become a police and crime commissioner for the Humberside Police in northeast England.

Before the vote, the government stressed the importance of making the 41 new commissioners directly accountable to the public. But as a result of widespread voter apathy, questions have now been raised about the mandate for the PCCs to carry out their duties.

For example, the new commissioner for Essex, Nick Alston, was elected by just 4.7 percent of those eligible to vote. At one Essex voting booth on polling day, election officials confessed that "just a handful" of voters had turned up in the first three hours.

'Waste of money'
One of those who did not vote for Alston – or for anyone - was former Essex police officer, Bob Miller.

Miller, 65, said he had purposefully spoiled his vote-by-mail as a protest against what he described as, “an undemocratic, unnecessary, waste of money.”

“The whole thing’s a joke,” he said, “It’s not been properly thought through.”

Miller’s sentiments featured among a number of reasons put forward to explain the low turn-out: the weather was bad (which is why British elections rarely take place in November); candidates had not been funded by the government to provide mail-shots; there had been little national publicity about either the reforms or the election.

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The organization of the poll was sharply criticized by pressure groups working for democratic reform.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, deplored what she called the "inaction and incompetence" of the preparation amid the government's "piecemeal" approach to democratic reform.

“Democracy doesn't work on the basis of 'if you build it, they will come',” Ghose said.

Campaign group Unlock Democracy called for a mass petition of the government minister responsible, demanding she “never allow public elections like this to go ahead on the cheap, at the wrong time of the year and with so little help for the electorate to make an informed decision.”

But some argue the main reason could be traced to failings at the heart of British democracy.

Political commentator Peter Kellner deplored the "chipping away" of the foundations of Britain's representative democracy, whereby voters elect politicians, at national and local level, to take decisions for them.

What Kellner perceived as a "patchwork arrangement" of new democratic initiatives, such as mayors and referendums, had eroded traditional British democracy over the past 40 years.

“The people seem to have understood far better than the politicians how unattractive that patchwork is,” he said.

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