By Robert Surcouf
THIS time last year we were all able to enjoy springtime with the added additional colour of election posters popping up all over the Island, many remaining in bloom for months after the election counts had been completed. We were all told that this election was going to be different, and that the electorate would turn out in far greater numbers due to the changes in the electoral system.
Standing outside my local parish hall for a few hours on election day there was a slow, steady trickle of both young and old and thankfully the weather was kind, yet the overall islandwide turnout was disappointing, though our parish did have one of the higher turnouts.
Having lived in St Peter all my life I, of course, recognised many of those turning out to vote but it was also pleasing to speak to many who were voting for the first time and who had not long been in Jersey and were therefore interested in participating in our electoral system.
Despite the changes and a very proactive programme to publicise the electoral process, which was undertaken in a number of languages, there was eventually no improvement in the islandwide electoral turnout, and I spoke to many people both before and after who decided they would not vote despite previously being regular attendees at the ballot box. So, what does this lack of civic engagement on election day mean for future elections and what action should the Members of our Assembly be considering as we are only three years away from the next one?
As a Procureur in St Peter, I am expected to attend the various parish assemblies and while they are not always the busiest, we do see civic engagement with individuals standing for posts within the municipality on the roads committee, rates inspectors and thankfully an increasing number putting themselves forward for the honorary police. What is especially pleasing to note was not only younger people being involved but also quite a number who have lived in the Island for only a year or two and from varying ethnic backgrounds who do appreciate the benefits of the systems and are willing to give up their time freely, adding to the diversity and experience. They are keen to understand and be involved and are adding value to our community and will over time hopefully attract more people to help make a difference so being new to the Island need not be a negative factor in engagement.
If we move away from the rather narrow assessment of civic engagement being defined by voter turnout and look at the support and fundraising that is undertaken in the Island for local clubs, events and charities we can quickly see a large community who are willing to give their time and money for the greater good of our community. That is quality civic engagement, and we see such a diverse mix within our society coming out to make a difference and we should not undervalue that goodwill.
So, the question has to be why are a proportion of these people unwilling to vote?
Many politicians have previously claimed that our system is too complicated, yet in the last election we only had two forms of Assembly Members and a single voting day. When we compare this to the UK, where you have councillors, mayors, police commissioners and MPs, or the US with local, state and national elections is it really that complex? And in many areas in Europe, we have versions of proportional representation requiring multiple choices or multiple stage elections requiring voting on a number of occasions which seem far more complicated compared to our system, yet they have higher electoral turnout then we have.
Rather than what we have seen to date being some Members trying to reintroduce Senators or discussing further changes to the Assembly or even larger campaigns to try to encourage people to find time to vote during the working days could we not look at computerised voting so that you have the option to either vote online or in person? This will make voting far easier and, I would anticipate, make election participation far greater than we have seen for the last few years. As it has been successfully rolled out in Estonia, I would hope they would be able to assist us in developing a cost-effective solution.
The other thing that would be beneficial for voter engagement is if everyone in the Assembly, whether part of the ministerial team or Scrutiny, is making a positive difference, being proactive and constructive and engaging with the electorate who elected them.
If we look at what happened last summer and some of the poor results for some of the sitting Members who were not re-elected, many suffered from being complacent and not listening, assuming name recognition would see them re-elected as many have done in the past.
Many were very surprised with how that turned out. All current Members can face the same outcome if they do not learn from that lesson as those who voted last time are likely to do the same again and they now appreciate they have real power. The voting electorate are not stupid, so please respect them and get on with what you were all elected to do: make life better for our community.
Robert Surcouf comes from a Jersey farming family, though his mother was Spanish and moved to Jersey in the 1960s. He became an accountant and now specialises in risk and enterprise management. A father of two school-age children, he still helps organise and participates in local motorsport events and was one of the founding members of Better Way 2022 before the last election. The views expressed are his own.