These extracts are taken from Mass Observation’s study of the non-voter in Bolton which was brought to mind by the extraordinarily low turnouts for this week’s police commissioner elections. The first extract is taken from a draft written by Tom Harrisson for a book on voting which was never completed. It’s interesting how the same debates go round and round- whether non-voting is a sign of apathy or protest. Harrisson’s conclusion in 1938 was that the non-voter was typically presented as ignorant and unwilling to participate responsibly in the democratic process.
MO struggled to find statistics from previous elections to inform their research and were breaking new ground in considering the non-voter. Today we are able to instantly access voting figures although there don’t seem to be many figures on spoilt ballot papers other than for the first candidate elected. Conservative Angus Macpherson became the first police commissioner elected with a turnout of 15.3% in Wiltshire. Spoilt ballots made up 3.3% of the total vote showing that a significant number of people cared enough to go and vote but did not agree with the election.
75 years after MO’s study the internet gives socially engaged people the opportunity to explain their actions in non-voting or spoiling their ballots meaning it is less possible to characterise them as apathetic and uninformed. Online campaigns were formed during the police elections encouraging spoiling of ballot papers and apparently a tumblr site was set up so that people could share their images of their papers. However it has been very difficult to find any evidence of this apart from on a couple of major news sites- the Huffington Post and ITV. The original images are no longer searchable on the internet. A shame because they are exactly the type of participatory observations which would have thrilled Mass Observation.