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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Help find Scotland’s missing million voters

This opinion piece is almost 10 years old

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, explains why voluntary organisations should help encourage Scots to register to vote and have their say in the referendum

Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO
Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO

At least one in four people in Scotland are unlikely to vote in the historic independence referendum, but if they did they could change the result.

This is the startling reality of the state of democracy in Scotland today. Barely 50% of us vote in Scottish Parliament elections, we manage less than two thirds turn out for UK General Elections and Europe and council elections attract only a small minority. All voting is in decline and our democracy is in decay.

Even the most optimistic pollsters reckon that getting 75% of voters to take part in the referendum is a big challenge and that still leaves over one million people who won’t take part at all.

From apathy to a growing distrust in politicians, fear of the electoral roll through to practicalities on the day, there are lots of reasons why people don’t vote. Thousands of students and holidaymakers end up in the wrong place at the wrong time without postal votes. Most prisoners aren’t allowed to vote and little is done to get the residents of care and nursing homes to exercise their democratic rights. Poor literacy or numeracy also takes its toll.

Many of those who struggle to survive amidst grinding poverty have lost hope in the notion that democracy can help their plight

We know that non-voting is highest in our poorest communities, despite the fact that the politics of welfare and the quality of public services matter most to people at the margins of our society. Many of those who struggle to survive amidst grinding poverty have lost hope in the notion that democracy can help their plight. A good number of young people are either disinterested or already alienated from political debate.

There are many agencies responsible for the conduct of elections but no one in charge of improving our democracy. In the past it was the role of political parties and their grassroots activists to get people registered and get the vote out but the number of foot soldiers has fallen in recent years. Nowadays the Electoral Commission is responsible for the conduct of elections and Returning Officers supervise the ballot boxes and the count, but little is done to win the argument on the doorstep, where it is needed, about the value of taking part.

We know what works because it has been tried and tested elsewhere. In Ireland, the Sisters of Nazarene run voter education campaigns in the poorest districts, driving up participation from 30 to 70%. There is also a “new citizen” initiative to help immigrants understand and contribute to Irish politics. In the USA, it is NGOs who lead voter registration campaigns, particularly in the southern states, whilst around the world citizen participation programmes offer a rich canvas of experience about how to get more people involved.

So let’s build on the interest generated by the referendum to make sure that our politics are as inclusive as the can be. Let’s demand that our politicians reach out to people and communities to draw them into politics, and not just to support a party ticket but to have a say and to make a difference.

The alternative is not good. Growing apathy and declining levels of involvement undermine our democratic institutions. Governments, in turn, become powerless and too easily influenced by vested interests. Party politics becomes ever more professional and all about raising funds and getting elected, no matter how few people support them.

Our democracy is like an old building. Without investment and maintenance it begins to decay. Cracks appear and it becomes less attractive to use. New investment and ongoing care are required if it is to be made fit for purpose.

The referendum campaign so far has highlighted the need for investment in participation and democratic renewal – whatever the outcome of the vote.

To find out more about registering to vote, visit About My Vote.

Martin Sime is the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

This is part of a series of TFN articles that focus on the #Missingmillion people who are not intending to vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September.