Politicians are always interested in motivating non-voters. Why? – Because if a political party can hold-on to its regular voter base and get just a small, even very small, % of the non-voters to vote for them for the first time, then that can make a huge difference in election results in terms of seats in the local councils, the NI Assembly, and Westminster. In addition, the trouble with falling turnout at elections is that politics becomes increasingly dominated by the intensely interested, and the political parties then increasingly pander to their own narrow activist support base. Local politicians should note that our election turnout performance is reaching danger levels. The turnout at the last Assembly election (2011) was 55%, down 8% from the previous Assembly election (2007), and it would be extremely destabilising for the turnout at the next NI Assembly election to fall below 50%!
Many commentators, and those who want to point to the public's disillusionment with politics, often use the increasing No. of non-voters as an example to support their case. However, this is putting 'non-voters' into one 'box', and ignores the fact that 'non-voters' are a complex grouping, made up of many separate parts.
First of all, in terms of analysing non-voters, there are differences between polls and public elections. In polls, participants may know who they're going to vote for, but don't want to tell the pollster. NB This phenomenon called the 'shy factor' applies to certain political parties or groups e.g. the Conservatives in Britain, and polling companies (like ours) apply weighting factors to compensate for this. Then of course there are poll respondents who answer 'Don't know' because they have genuinely not made up their mind yet, but intend to vote. Then there's a group, a growing group, who perhaps have voted in the past, have stopped voting, and are open to persuasion about voting at the next election. These are the genuine disillusioned, and genuine 'Don't Knows'. They are the main sub-group of the overall No Opinion/Non-Voter/Don't Know's, that the political parties are after at election time. So as can be seen from this basic analysis, there isn’t a single type of non-voter. Plus as well as these groups, non-voters fit into several broader groups, or clusters as the US pollsters call them, with the main non-voter clusters being: Doers, Unplugged, Irritables, and Alienateds.
‘The Doers’ are probably the most puzzling group of non-voters, as in many ways they look more like voters in their attitudes and characteristics than non-voters. These people are educated, relatively affluent, and are generally more optimistic about their future, than other non-voter clusters. They read newspapers and watch television news, and they discuss politics (but this is usually national and international politics) with their friends and families. However they don’t vote. The main reason the ‘Doers’ group give for not voting is that they don’t think it makes any difference to their lives who gets elected, and that they can influence the decisions that affect their lives in other ways.
Another group, called the ‘Unplugged’, largely ignore politics and public affairs. They don’t read newspapers and hold few or no opinions of the NI Assembly and other government institutions. Not surprisingly this group answer ‘Don’t Know/No Opinion/Don’t vote’ to the political party preference poll-question, and then 90% continue to also answer ‘Don’t know/No Opinion’ to the other poll questions as well! NB This latter analysis doesn’t apply to some of the other non-voting clusters. The ‘Unplugged’ are disproportionately young and female and are unconnected to news events and public affairs. They are generally more sceptical than the Doers. It's from this group that you get the line 'I don't do politics...'. You also often hear 'I would vote if there was someone worth voting for' - However, I would suggest that for the majority of these type of people it wouldn't matter what candidate came forward, many would still be unimpressed and not vote. The 'UnPlugged' are the most difficult group to go after in terms of enthusing them to vote - they've probably never voted in the past, and probably never will in the future. It's just the way they want to live their lives. The only time a sizable group of the 'Unplugged' come out and vote, is at important issue referendums like the NI 1998 Good Friday agreement referendum, and the recent Scottish independence referendum.
The ‘Irritables’, are keen information consumers, know what is going on in NI, and are annoyed. They are mostly in the 25-64 age-groups and are therefore older on average, than the Unplugged. They think NI is being badly run, is on the ‘wrong track’, and overwhelmingly have a poor view of politicians, Stormont, and the government in general. Like their name implies, they tend to be angrier than the Doers, but just as informed. The columnist Alex Kane has said he is a non-voter - When discussing this with him he said he would have described himself as an 'unplugged'. However, although Alex says he doesn't vote anymore, you certainly can't say he's 'unplugged'. He's an 'Irritable' as most of his commentary articles and interviews suggest.
The ‘Alienateds’ are like the Irritables, but are more angry than annoyed, and don't believe involvement in electoral politics will make them less angry. Like the 'Unplugged' they're removed from politics, but are angry about their lives. The Alienated are not major news consumers, except on issues they can vent their anger about. Along with the main ‘Unplugged’ group, they tend to answer ‘Don’t know/No Opinion’ to most of the poll questions, however they do put forward their own views to the pollster! Interestingly the 'Alienateds' make up a large chunk of those who are involved in the flag disputes here in NI, and the water charge protests in the South. Yes they're angry, and yes they protest, but it's surprising how large a No. of these protesters don't actually vote. They're disillusioned with electoral politics, and feel they can get their point across better via street protests, and getting media coverage via these protests - They probably enjoy it more as well!
As can be seen, while the Non-Voting Doers and Irritables are well-informed and generally interested in public affairs and politics, the Non-Voting Unplugged and the Alienated are not.
So how do we get these non-voters to vote? Some use the argument that we should have compulsory voting similar to what they have in Australia, and Brazil, where it is compulsory (enforceable by fines) to attend a polling station and complete a ballot, even if it is deliberately spoiled. Although I’m an elections junkie, and would love to see large participation in elections here as it would give increased legitimacy to the political institutions, I’m uncomfortable about compulsory voting. This is because it raises human rights issues, in that forcing people to take time out of their lives to go and do something they really don’t want to do, is to me anyway, a bit dangerous.
In any case, in terms of elections science, the argument always comes back that compulsory voting wouldn’t make that much different to the election result as the former non-voters’ would divide, in terms of party preference, roughly in the same way as the voters. There is some evidence that this would be true in the US and UK (i.e. GB), but would this be true in NI? – I’m not so sure.
So to broaden their appeal, what non-voting clusters should our NI Political parties target? The parties, particularly on the Unionist side, seem to be working hard on the ‘Alienateds’, as this is the group most active in the loyal orders, parades, culture, and flags disputes. Of course, whether this translates into increased participation from these groups in ballot-box politics at future elections remains to be seen. However, perhaps our local political parties should really target the Doers (High Income, Middle class) and Irritables clusters. These two groups will be key to any future election success – But how you motivate these groups to get to the polling stations, and participate in the democratic process, is the key and difficult question.