Voter Apathy? Who can be bothered?

At The Derby in 1913, a woman named Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself under a horse to gain the vote. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, an unnamed Chinese man carrying two shopping bags held up four Red Army tanks in a peaceful democratic protest that saw hundreds lose their lives. This year, we’ve seen the people of Libya fight for free elections. Can we imagine the risks ordinary people run to topple the men who put the nasty into dynasty?

In Scottish elections, about 50% of our population is unwilling to stroll to the polling station. We ought to do something about voter apathy but, frankly, who can bothered? Tony Blair probably summed it up best. ‘If people really wanted to put the government out, they wouldn’t be staying at home. They would be out putting the government out.’

The issue has been tackled before in Scotland by the body responsible for protecting and promoting democracy in this country. As an adman, I had the good fortune to be involved in the Electoral Commission’s attempt to stimulate democratic participation during the 2007 Scottish Elections. I say ‘good fortune’ since the official report commended our campaign, and ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. Nonsense from Nietzsche obviously, but it helps you feel that every trying experience is an opportunity for learning: a chance to grow and develop – and tick a few boxes on your Continuous Professional Development log.

I’ve worked in adland in the UK, Ireland and New York for nearly 30 years. But the campaign to encourage voting for the 2007 Scottish Elections still ranks among the most difficult experiences of my career.

The task seemed easy – until we understood what the task was. Surely, trying to get people enthused and excited about exercising their hard-won democratic rights would be simple. We would be enthused and excited ourselves: it would be like Martin Luther King and “I have a dream…”

Meanwhile back in reality, a political decision had been made to hold two different elections (the Scottish Parliamentary elections and local council elections) on the same day; using two different voting systems (first-past-the-post and the single-transferable vote) and two ballots with not one, not two, but three votes.

Our job was to explain that voting system to the public.

And to get people to feel motivated.

The omens were not good though. The Welsh elections in the same year, with a simpler voting system, had attracted a turnout of just 44%. There was also evidence from Northern Ireland that running two elections in one day increased the rate of spoilt ballots.

Sometimes, working with clients, you get the impression that ‘ours is not to reason why’. Usually, all the arguments have been had, and lost, behind closed doors – and officials and hired hands simply end up doing their best to put policy into practice.

So, from the start, the task seemed daunting, and for good reasons.

It’s well known how ordinary people feel about elections. (Politicians find elections exciting but they are not ordinary people and therefore should be banned from public office.)

Firstly, voting propensity depends on your age, employment and family background. Basically, if you’re young (18-24) or in unskilled manual work, you’re less likely to vote. If you’re older and/or come from a family that’s politically-engaged, you’re more likely to vote.

Secondly, people don’t know much about our political system. They’re not that familiar with what the Scottish Parliament does compared to Westminster or their local council. There is the odd high profile issue but the workings of Scottish government are poorly covered in Scotland’s general media. As a result, the prestige of the Scottish Parliament – and in consequence, the importance of its elections – is diminished. Equally as a result, the public is more aware of key characters than policy differences. So, despite protests about personality politics, sound-bite heroics are here to stay.

Thirdly, the public find psephology and the science of voting systems boring beyond belief. The technicalities of ‘who gets in and how’ seem so complex and remote from their motivations and the real life impacts of the result that discussing ‘voting’ actually puts them off voting.

Fourthly, policy convergence and the professionalisation of politicians has made all the choices seem sort of ‘samey’. The old class allegiances are breaking down too. We rightly reckon that, whoever gains power, the real-life room-for-manoeuvre is more limited than the parties pretend and, wrongly, that ideological differences can make little difference to us personally. So, we think “If it doesn’t matter who you vote for, why vote at all?”

Fifthly and finally, the public do not trust politicians. No need to expand on that point, I guess.

When you overlay the communication challenges on top of consumer attitudes to politics and elections, the task of ‘selling voting’ becomes nightmarish.

Commercial TV is still the top option for reaching lots of the public fast – especially those ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. And, for folk who don’t watch telly, read newspapers or use the web, it’s hard to ignore big outdoor posters. But trying to explain ‘detail’ about voting in a TV commercial or on big ‘drive-by’ posters? It’s like bailing out a boat with a colander: it’s not designed to do the job, but it’s all you’ve got.

With the exceptions of sales-pitch infomercials, mass marketing generally relies on simple, single-minded, emotionally-driven ideas. The reason is that few of us make our life decisions based on ‘detail’ or even by processing ‘information’ anyway. Like falling in love or buying a particular house, you’ll understand how emotive or intuitive the big decisions in life can be. But let me give you a small, daft example.

Let’s say you want to buy soap powder. The top-selling brand Persil is £2.83; the challenger Bold is discounted at £1.56; and the supermarket’s own value brand is 85p. How do you work out which to buy? As you stand before the soap powder section in the supermarket, do you assign a mark to the ‘expected satisfaction’ – whiteness, cleanliness, freshness – you’ll gain from each brand? Do you weight the marks for the social indignity of having cheap powder in your basket instead of a top brand? Do you add or deduct marks whether you’re cleaning your best clothes or handling a teenager’s washing? And do you divide the total expected satisfaction by the price to deduce which brand will give you the best value-for-money?

Of course not. You buy consumer goods based on feeling. Anything else would be irrational – because we generally don’t have the time, expertise or even interest to ‘do the math’. Equally, experience teaches us that Spock-like thinking can leave us unhappy as humans. So, gut instinct and guesswork are quick and (usually) effective.

Voting isn’t that different, is it? How many of us really have time to study a manifesto? Or check the detail of a candidate’s standing? Or work out what all this might mean for us personally or socially? Research says the public struggles to see the link between what happens in a polling booth and in our real lives. But, in focus groups, we always wish to appear logical: we say that if we understood the impact of voting, we’d vote more.

You have to doubt it, though. After all the pain and hard work put into explaining how ‘your vote matters’ in 2007, turnout was still just 52% – albeit a significant uplift from the previous Scottish election.

Maybe, just maybe, if democracy really were sold like soap-powder, we might vote in bigger numbers. We’d think of all those dirty old regimes and realise the value of our vote. Who we decide to vote for – or whether we decide to vote at all – might still be based on a feeling. But at least our politics would be whiter than white.