Changes to the timing of the election, the banning of election posters, voter indifference and the single transferable voting system are being blamed for low turnout across Edinburgh in last week’s local council election.
Only 42.6 per cent or 141,552 of 331,954 eligible voters showed up to cast their ballots, down from 58.3 per cent of voters in 2007.
Participation was higher than predicted on Thursday night after poll booths shut. After a poor show at the ballot boxes across the city, some candidates were predicting wards with 20 per cent or less of voters taking part, and only 30 per cent of voters participating overall.
Edinburgh’s turnout was considerably higher than elsewhere in the UK - in Manchester and Bristol only 24 per cent of voters turned up.
Sighthill/Gorgie saw the lowest voter turnout of all seventeen Edinburgh wards, with only 34.56 per cent turning up to vote, down from 49.6 per cent in 2007. The seat saw two SNP and two Labour candidates elected.
Forth likewise had one of the lowest percentages of turnout in the city - only 37.7 per cent - a result made worse by the 136 ballot papers that were rejected in the ward.
Colinton/Fairmilehead was the only ward to register turnout above 50 per cent, with a 51 per cent turnout, the highest of all the wards. It saw two Conservatives and one SNP candidate elected. Nonetheless, it was still 25 per cent fewer voters than in 2007. Meadows/Morningside, where Council Leader Jenny Dawe lost her seat, also saw a 25 per cent drop this election.
By comparison, in 2007 only one ward - Sighthill/Gorgie - registered turnout below 50 per cent.
SNP leader Steve Cardownie expressed disappointment at the poor showing, adding that “no politician is pleased with a low turnout - it weakens the mandate they have.”
The low levels of participation prompted questions as to the sense of moving local elections to a different day than Scottish Parliament elections.
The last time the local elections were held separate to the Scottish Parliament elections was in 1995, when voter turnout was similarly low, at 44.5 per cent.
It is also the first local election after the SNP and the Conservatives voted to ban the displaying of election posters in June last year. On his blog, unsuccessful Pirate Party candidate for Meadows/Morningside, Phil Hunt, pointed to the lack of posters as a reason for the small number of voters, saying: “Posters make people aware that there’s an election going on, and might nudge them to think about the issues.”
Second-year Medical Science student Shinjini Basu told The Journal that she didn’t vote in the local elections “primarily because I had no idea there were elections.”
She added that if she had seen election posters around the city, it “maybe” would have encouraged her to vote, but “probably not because I wouldn’t know if (as a Commonwealth citizen) I would be allowed to vote.”
Other suggestions for encouraging greater voter participation included changing the day of voting from a Thursday to a weekend – a suggestion that was likewise supported by Cardownie.
However, voter discontent with parties across the political spectrum may have also played a large part in the disappointing numbers, with many instead staying home either out of protest or general disinterest.
Re-elected Conservative councillor for Colinton/Fairmilehead, Jason Rust, said it was hard to tell if low voter turnout was a protest or apathy.
Angrier voters chose to register their discontent with the political system by turning up to the booths simply to lodge a protest vote by way of invalidating their ballot paper.
Lucas McGregor-Paas, President of the Edinburgh University Scottish Nationalists Association, told The Journal: "I fear that this poor turnout may repeat itself in the European Parliament Election in 2014 unless the political parties of Scotland start to work together to re-engage the public."
In Meadows/Morningside, there were reports of a ballot paper with “I hate you all” written on it. Another report came out of a ballot paper with “TRAMS - ENOUGH SAID, EH?” written across it in lieu of a numbered preference of candidates.
Many other ballot papers were reportedly used to make some reference to the trams instead of being used as a voting card.
Former City council leader Jenny Dawe said following her unsuccessful re-election attempt that “it was the right thing to do, if somebody doesn’t approve of the trams they have the right not to vote for anybody because all the major parties at some stage voted for the trams.”
Other voters had spoiled their ballots by putting an “X” in the box instead of the numbered preferences required by the Single Transferable Voting system.
Confusion or lack of understanding over voting by numbered preferences as opposed to marking an “X” has also been cited as a reason for voters staying away, with Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale tweeting: “Let’s be honest – this electronic counting malarkey takes all the fun and drama out of the count.”
Overall 1868 votes across the city were rejected for being incorrect.