A huge and well known problem for democracy across the developed world is that voter turnout has been falling in elections for a number of years. It is particularly noticeable in towns and cities, which reflects the fact the problem is worst with the less well-off sections of the electorate. The UK is no exception – but last September’s Scottish referendum made the world sit up and take notice. The referendum strongly bucked the downward trend, producing an 84.6% turnout, well above the 66% of voters who voted in the previous two UK elections. It was heralded as a great example of democratic engagement, with strong impetus at grassroots level that saw activists on almost every street corner and lively debates in church halls and community centres the length of the country. According to former Scottish Nationalist deputy leader Jim Sillars, it was “a unique civic exercise in self-political education on a massive scale”.
Scotland still appeared to be feeling this “referendum effect” at the time of this May’s UK election. The 71.1% turnout was an increase of 7.3 points on 2010, compared to a one-point increase elsewhere in the UK. And it is worth noting that Scotland was particularly disengaged from politics in the years before the referendum – this was the first time Scotland recorded a turnout higher than the rest of the UK in an election since 1979.
For politicians and political scientists looking to revitalise long-term declines in voter turnout across the board, a view has developed that Scotland might point to an answer – particularly for deprived communities. So we decided to look more closely at voter behaviour in Scotland during different recent elections to see if this interpretation was correct.