by Chris Carman
The end of March saw the Electoral Commission’s guide to the Scottish local council elections start dropping through letter boxes across the country. Aside from the parties announcing the launch of their campaigns, few things signal the start of an election campaigning season better than the arrival of these trusty leaflets.
With the council elections due to be held on 5 May 2022, the purpose of the guide is to help potential voters understand the particulars of the voting process (from registration through to how to vote and even what the ballot will look like) as well as provide a bit of information on the nature of what it is that Scottish councils do and what services they provide. Given that council-level elections have a difficult time rousing the public’s attention – fewer than half of eligible voters typically turn out – the Electoral Commission’s guides are a much-needed attempt to promote interest in and knowledge about these contests.
And evidence from the latest Scottish Election Study’s Scottish Opinion Monitor (SCOOP) survey indicates that not only are the Electoral Commission leaflets well-timed, but they are also sorely needed. The SCOOP survey, which was fielded 1-8 March 2022, included several questions about the local elections gauging public interest and knowledge about the upcoming elections. Our survey was administered on our behalf by YouGov, who contacted an online sample of 1,250 voting-age adults (16+) living in Scotland. The figures presented below are derived from the sample with population-representative weights applied.
Convincing people to head to the polls for the council elections in the same numbers they would do for devolved or general elections has historically been a bit of a challenge. In 2017 turnout at council elections across Scotland was 46.9%, an increase over the 2012 turnout of 39.7%. (By comparison turnout in last year’s Holyrood elections was around 64% and the average across all Scottish Parliament elections is roughly 55%.) Bochel and Denver speculated the increase in 2017 turnout was in part due to the fact that the council elections were held during a general election campaign and also possibly helped by a general uplift in participation following the high-engagement 2014 independence referendum.
While we don’t have SES survey panel evidence to compare 2022 with 2017, findings on the local elections questions from our cross-sectional SCOOP survey administered in the first week of March do not exactly suggest prospective voters are enthusiastic about the upcoming election. We asked our survey respondents:
“How interested, if at all, would you say you are in the local elections taking place in May 2022?”
[Response options ranged from (1) “Very interested” to (4) “Not at all interested”.]
Here we see that slightly more SCOOP respondents indicate some interest in the upcoming elections than not, with 54% saying they are “fairly” or “very” interested and 46% indicating that they are “not very” or “not at all” interested. On the plus side, as a general rule, voters tend not to pay too much attention to elections – especially elections they deem to have relatively limited importance – until just before polling day. As such, we might expect there to be an uptick in interest once the campaign begins in earnest. After all, the services provided by local councils have been a hot-button topic over the last several years.
That said, we also know that “social desirability bias” may lead some respondents to answer survey questions in a way that they believe (consciously or not) makes them look better. For instance, we might remember from school lessons that we should be interested in politics (and even local politics) and that social pressure to claim to be interested might be enough to tip some respondents to indicate they are “fairly interested” when, in fact, their natural inclination may have been to tick the “not very” box.
When we break responses to this question down by demographics, the “usual suspects” become apparent in predicting interest. For instance, older people (60+) tend to report higher levels of interest in the council elections. What may surprise some readers is that after the 60+ groups, the next two age groups to express the highest level of interest in Scottish council elections are 16-17 year olds, then the 20-29 year olds. Although we are not talking about huge margins here, the least interested are the middle aged (30-59 year olds).
Of course to express interest is not the same as saying that you feel confident in your knowledge of elections. We also asked SCOOP respondents to assess how much knowledge they think they have about the upcoming May council elections. Specifically, we asked:
“Local council elections sometimes receive less attention than elections to the Scottish Parliament or Westminster. Using a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means very little knowledge and 10 means a very large amount of knowledge, how much knowledge do you think you have about the forthcoming local elections in May 2022?“
Here is where perhaps the need for voter education efforts such as those undertaken by the Electoral Commission become apparent. Overall, the Scottish public does not report a resounding degree of confidence in their knowledge of council elections. On a 0-10 scale, with 0 meaning “very little knowledge”, the average across our SCOOP respondents was a somewhat disappointing 3.8 (with the median respondent sitting at 4, meaning that more than half of respondents placed themselves below the scale’s midpoint). The modal response category (the one selected most often) was “0”, selected by 19% of our respondents.
Not surprisingly, there are significant differences across Scottish society. For instance, people with university level degrees tend to report somewhat higher knowledge than those without higher degrees (though the mean difference (=.40, p<.01) is perhaps not quite as substantial as one might anticipate). Respondents at the higher social grades (AB) tended to report a point higher (4.4), on average, than those at the lower social grades (DE) (3.4).
The most striking difference across a demographic characteristic, however, is the difference across age groups. The figure below displays the mean for differing age groups, sharply revealing that those at the lower age groups say they have substantially less knowledge about the council elections than do more senior members of Scottish society. Here we see that the average older respondent (70+) places themselves just shy of 1.5 points higher on the overall 0-10 knowledge scale than the average respondent under the age of 29 (and people in the 30-39 age group are even lower).
We also find significant variation when we look at key political indicators. Across people who identify with political parties, Greens report by far the highest level of knowledge about the council elections (mean = 5.3) and SNP supporters report the lowest (4.2), with Labour (4.5), Conservatives (4.4) and LibDems (4.3) falling in-between. As outlined in a previous SES blog, Green supporters are substantially more likely to be university educated than those of other parties, which may explain the difference here.
The clear stand out, though, is those people saying they do not support a particular political party, with a mean self-reported knowledge of the council elections at 2.9, well below the average partisan. A similar pattern emerges between people who say they voted in the 2021 Holyrood elections (mean = 4.2) and those who did not vote last year (2.1). Whilst the differences across the politically engaged and disengaged are not at all surprising, they are a reminder that a large segment of society does not feel enough of a connection to politics to learn about and participate in elections that have a substantial impact on the local services on which we all rely and, indeed, to which we have the closest and most immediate connection.
Finally, readers of this blog will likely already be aware that Scotland uses several different electoral systems across its range of elections. First-past-the-post with single member districts is used for Westminster elections; a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system (often referred to as the “additional member system” in Scotland) is used for Holyrood elections; and the proportional single transferrable vote is used for council elections.
For the Scottish council elections the single transferable vote (STV) system has been in place since 2007. With experience of four previous elections using STV, we might hope that the Scottish public is aware of how the ballot will look and, importantly, how to use that STV ballot to indicate their electoral preferences. At the same time, experience (and previous Scottish Election Study surveys) have shown us that the public is still not quite clear on the specific functioning of political processes in the Scottish system. We therefore asked our SCOOP respondents to simply indicate if they can identify the electoral system used in council elections.
“Which best describes the electoral system used in local elections in Scotland?”
14% You can only vote for the one candidate you like best in your area
33% You have two votes, one for your local area and one for your region
22% You rank candidates in order of preference and can choose from more than one party
32% Don’t know
The correct answer is “You rank candidates in order of preference and can choose from more than one party.” Just 22% of our respondents got it right. Roughly 1/3 or respondents selected the election method associated with the Scottish Parliament elections and roughly 1/3 flatly said “don’t know.”
Similar patterns to those described above across demographic groups are also evident here. Amongst university graduates, 34% selected the correct response, with 18% of non-university degree holders getting it correct. A somewhat larger percentage of older and middle-aged respondents (approx. 24%) got it correct than younger respondents (18%). Of course, to be fair to the 90% of 16 & 17 year-olds who got it wrong, they will not have even had the chance to vote in council elections yet.
Politically, we find that – somewhat at odds with self-reported knowledge – it is the Liberal Democrat supporters (whose party has long advocated for STV in elections) are most likely to identify the correct voting system (44%), followed by the Greens (31%), Conservatives (25%), Labour (21%) and SNP supporters (19%). Non-partisan respondents, despite reporting relatively low levels of knowledge about council elections, fared about as well as many partisans, with 20% selecting the correct electoral system. The most striking gap, however, is perhaps between those people who say they voted in the 2021 Holyrood elections, with 26% getting it right, and those who did not vote, with just 8% selecting the correct response.
The particularly curious reader might wonder whether people who said they were interested in and those who claimed to be knowledgeable about council elections were more likely to select the correct electoral system. In both cases they were. Amongst the interested, 31% selected the correct answer compared to 12% among those who said they are not interested and amongst those who claimed to be knowledgeable 36% got it correct versus the 13% who (apparently, rightly) indicated they had relatively low levels of knowledge about the upcoming elections. On reflection, what draws our attention here is that only slightly more than a third of the people who believe they are knowledgeable about Scotland’s upcoming council elections were able to identify the electoral system they will use to vote in those elections.
While the Electoral Commission’s Scottish council election guides are a welcome and much needed contribution toward improving voter education across Scotland, the results from the latest SES SCOOP reveal that there remains much to do to encourage greater awareness of, knowledge about and engagement with council elections in Scotland. And, of course, the burden does not and should not solely fall on the Electoral Commission to educate the people of Scotland about their political system. Many organisations take an active role in this citizenship/democracy space.
Years of political science research have demonstrated the importance of socialising young people and new citizens into the norm of political participation in democracies. We also know that people tend to vote at higher rates when they feel a connection to their community and understand the roles of public institutions in supporting services we rely on in our daily lives. And we also know that those marginalised groups in society who tend to participate less also tend to be the groups that can be overlooked and unheard in public policy-making.
The role that the Electoral Commission, schools and other public and third sector bodies play in trying to raise awareness of local, council elections across the whole of society is one we, as political scientists, support and endorse.