Over half a million people (577,851) did not vote in last year’s NI Assembly election. That’s an average of 32,103 people per constituency. The most votes (first preference) for any party in any constituency was 19,752, for Sinn Féin, in Belfast West, where 27,003 people didn’t vote. The most first preference votes for the DUP (17,655) were in North Antrim where 36,873 people did not vote.
When you look at the breakdown of first preference votes for the parties across constituencies you can’t help but wonder whether those non-voters’ votes would have made a difference. There are so many more people who didn’t vote than actually voted for the highest polling parties.
Of course, there’s no way of knowing how those non-voters would actually vote if they had to put pencil to paper—they might all decide to vote along the same lines as those who currently vote. But there is some evidence that in Northern Ireland many of the non-voters are of ‘no religion’ or ‘other religion’, i.e. they are not Catholic or Protestant (LucidTalk poll results). Could it be that they are not voting because (until very recently) most of the party options have been split along Unionist/Loyalist/Protestant and Nationalist/Republican/Catholic lines and they don’t feel they can identify with any of the parties?
A Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2010 provided a little insight into why people were choosing not to vote in the 2011 election. People gave their own reasons, with a quarter saying they were ‘Not interested’, a fifth saying it ‘Makes no difference,waste of time, irrelevant’, and a further fifth saying ‘No trust/confidence/belief in system or politicians’. What we do not know is specifically why they felt this way or what would change their minds.
Would it make a difference if non-voters saw their constituency vote numbers and realised how many other people in their area don’t vote either, perhaps for similar reasons…and that if they all voted, they might make a difference?
What we do know is that fewer voters have been casting their votes in each election since 1998.
% Voter Turnout – All NI Assembly Elections
|Data from: NI Assembly Research and Information Service Research Paper, 12 May 2016, Election Report: Northern Ireland Assembly Election, 5 May 2016, NIAR 141-16.|
There are obvious problems with Stormont and the way the whole system here works. In recent years the wishes of the majority of our NI population, as expressed through polls, surveys, and most significantly through majority votes in Stormont itself, have been ignored or overridden for a number of reasons and in a number of ways—including through misuse of the Petition of Concern mechanism which was originally designed to work in the interests of the whole community. (That is a subject requiring a blogpost all of its own—and it is a problem that has to be dealt with by the next administration.)
Surely the first step towards changing Stormont, and the future of this place that we all love, because it is home and it is beautiful, is for people to try to vote for change—make sure those who have governed so badly cannot continue to do so—give some new people an opportunity to change the systems and structures that need to be changed. I think we probably all agree that a change is needed – don’t we?
If you are a non-voter please think again about voting.
If you know some non-voters, see if you can persuade them to vote…especially if they might be inclined to vote for a change.