The Problem with Elections

By Katy Prichard

You know those days when everything seems to happen at once? Deadlines clash, the phone doesn’t seem to stop ringing, emails are piling up: adrenaline pumping, you’re working your hardest and trying to achieve something really worthwhile, something hard, but something that you really believe will make a difference, and to top it all off everyone is complaining that you’re not achieving enough?

If you’re looking for a metaphor for being a Lib Dem Minister this might be it, but the real parallel I am drawing is with any number of our party’s voluntary Executive Committees. In my time I’ve heard my fair share of complaints about them. Not working hard enough, not being representative, and being navel-gazing careerists. And I would be lying to say that I’ve never had a niggling doubt myself upon occasion. But at the end of the day, giving up time to contribute to an Executive Committee is admirable.

Though the work of an Executive Committee member is hard, getting elected itself is no easy job either (as almost all Lib Dems can attest). Let alone organising an election. In my time with Liberal Youth I oversaw many elections (by elections, honorary officer elections, annual elections, Committee elections, sub-Committee elections, regional elections) – and it is this experience that has spurred me to write. And yes, when I say “organising elections” I’m talking the bear bones of getting candidates names on ballot papers, ballot papers to voters, and votes counted.

The politics of Politics really doesn’t interest me and I have no interest in entering into a debate, but perhaps my experiences, tinted with a beautiful dose of hindsight and distance, will prove enlightening.

Please forgive me, but this article is about to get very Liberal Youth-y (stick to what you know, hey?)

The main concerns when running an Executive Committee election are ensuring that the election is constitutionally compliant, ensuring that there are candidates for all positions, and ensuring that as many people as possible can make an informed vote. Promotion to potential candidates and electors it seems may well be the solution to the latter two problems, and I will address this later. Let us first consider the constitutional restraints.

As we all know, Liberal Youth does not have a generous budget; barely enough to cover constitutional requirements to a minimum while retaining a functional office. In every election I have organised the initial discussion has run as follows:

Chair: We need to elect a new                 

Returning Officer: Let me check the constitution: if we need to complete a mailing you’re going to have to reallocate money from the campaigning budget.

Running an election on a shoe string budget inevitably results in every money-saving option available being taken: reducing the size of manifestos, prohibiting colour printing, and using electronic alternatives where possible. None of these cuts in any way assist in the process of engaging members. Whilst a constitutionally compliant election can still be run, around a third of members (those without email) will need to actively monitor social media and websites to learn of elections.

When membership is high there reaches a point where physical mailings are simply unaffordable. To post members a notice of nominations opening, and a manifesto with a ballot paper costs around £3500 on postage out alone- and if everyone returned their ballots freepost (and it would seem reasonable to expect a freepost address for this kind of thing) this cost would rise to £5250. That’s not an excuse to encourage poor turnout. It’s just a fact. That’s a good chunk of Liberal Youth’s entire annual budget on postage alone, without even considering printing costs.

Returned post is a common occurrence at LDHQ, but never more for the Liberal Youth team than after the annual elections. Up to six months after mailings have been posted, bounced ballot papers are still arriving. That’s a whole load of money spent on undeliverable letters- around £75 worth per mailing. With the majority of LY members being students- with ever-changing addresses, even a proper mailing can’t guarantee success.

Now I’ve done my fair of fund raisers too, but you try and make sending an election mailing sound appealing. Or explain that so little campaigning is being done because we have to divert money to fund elections. It’s really not easy. Cost restraints simply rule out using additional mailings to improve promotion, but for compliance purposes nomination and ballot mailings cannot be written off altogether, despite the regular problems of increasing postal charges, mail lost in the post, and out of date membership data.

In an ideal world, every election (by elections, Committee elections, the lot) would have an all-member ballot, glossy mail-house mailings, and would be supported by Lib Dem Calling style reminders, e-campaigns, and regional hustings to ensure their success. The intention is there, but the budget simply isn’t. Imagine paying for all election candidates to visit every branch in the country? Even e-hustings would require the expense of getting all candidates to a central camera-wielding location- right in the middle of exam time too.

Yes, inclusive elections are very important- and everyone in Liberal Youth is very aware of the importance of democracy- but it’s simply not an available choice.

On average each mailing takes about two weeks of office time and means booking out huge spaces in HQ. That’s a considerable investment. Even a very basic election involves a considerable amount of work that is invisible unless you are engaged behind the scenes.

The magic solution of electronic elections was raised with me many times, and explored extensively on more than one occasion, but the costs remain prohibitively high. In addition, such a system lacks the flexibility that elections such as Liberal Youth’s require. How many times have deadlines been extended because no candidates have been nominated? Too many times for me to keep count. If Liberal Youth were using an electronic system each delay would incur a hefty charge. (And even my knowledge of GoogleDocs isn’t good enough to create a secure online voting system to avoid this!)

There have been many positive steps towards finding other ways to promote elections: hustings at conferences, the use of social media, and increased reliance on email communications. A great deal of time goes towards arranging these initiatives.

Hustings have to be carefully timed around conference schedules, no candidates can be excluded from attending and an impartial chair has to be found (Returning Officers often choose against spending their weekends in university basement rooms with a bunch of teenagers debating the correct applications of procedural motions). However, at every opportunity possible hustings are held at conference, candidates will mingle, and the general message will be spread by word of mouth: go on, have a go- run for the Executive Committee. Candidates aren’t cherry picked by the Executive; it only seems this way because they do such a good job of engaging those they meet who show an interest in running for a position.

Sending a bulk email to Liberal Youth members is a more horrific experience than I care to remember- extracting data from party databases, matching this with various opt-out lists, scheduling the mailing around HQ emails (or risking the office email account/all “@liberalyouth.org” email addresses being filtered to junk by the odd angry member complaining to the internets gods). Despite this, in an effort to engage members both with campaigning and getting actively involved in the Executive Committee, more and more time and effort is going in to making mailings regular, informative and interesting- and for this I can only applaud the determination of those who arrange them!

Social media only goes so far. After about the fifth Lib Dem update on my facebook feed I tend to click my favourite facebook button next to any more that follow. “Unsubscribe.” Too many updates about budget day/the state opening of parliament/Prime Minister’s Questions results in many of the less involved members disengaging before elections even start being promoted. Inclusive social media campaigns are by no means assisted by rude comments or exclusive in-jokes that often darken the pages of networking sites.

The long and the short of my message here is that the trend I experienced within Liberal Youth, even at a general level, was an attempt to engage a wider base of members through all means possible. Occasionally (in some people’s opinions) the Executive Committee may get this wrong: but on the whole their intentions are good.

To leave on a positive note, if you are sat reading this and scowling at the number of uncontested positions in the latest Liberal Youth elections, cross about Executive Committee members seeming to smoothly transfer from one elected position into the next, the lack of diversity that can occur, and upset that Liberal Youth elections aren’t talked about enough, then there is something you can do. The next time you hear that nominations are opening, email liberalyouthadmin@libdems.org.uk and ask for details of how to run for office yourself. Do your part in making elections open, diverse and genuinely contested: run for something.

There is one message I always pushed throughout my time in the Liberal Youth office. There is nothing “special” about Executive Committee members; they don’t have a magical knowledge of Lib Dem policy, they don’t get a tap on the shoulder from LDHQ, they often don’t even have extensive experience, they are just like you and me. They are as busy as you and me. They care about the change that the Lib Dems can make. And they took the brave step of putting themselves forwards. That could be you.

Don’t let fear put you off, and please don’t criticise those who played their part in making sure that there were candidates for all of the positions in the last  LY elections.

The next time you get fired up by something your party has achieved, remember that feeling. Remind yourself of it when you go to recycle your  A5 black-and-white nominations-open mailing, or hover over the delete button on that nominations-open email. The “reply” button isn’t any harder to press, and you’d be making a very real contribution.

Life is like a loaf of bread- you’d never try and eat it all at once, you cut it into small pieces first and tackle it slice by slice.

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