By Mark Boleat
FIVE months have passed since the general election on 22 June. While the election results rightly attracted publicity at the time, any election raises some issues about political processes which need addressing.
This is as true for Jersey as it is for anywhere else. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association observer mission has published its report, which contains a number of useful points. None are of huge constitutional significance but all merit attention.
As a participant in the election and a keen student of political process, I also have a number of observations about the election which I hope will be taken on board.
By any standards, the election was well conducted and Jersey can count itself fortunate to have an electoral process that works reasonably well. But it is not perfect.
A major issue, widely recognised, is the low level of turnout – just 41.6% in 2022 against the target that had been established of 50%.
The figure is among the lowest in the world and drags Jersey down in the OECD Better Life Index.
The reasons why people don’t vote are well known through previous opinion surveys. Another survey is being conducted, which no doubt will show similar results. What is needed now is people to act on the results of surveys.
There are two sets of issues that need to be addressed. The first is simply the logistics of voting, because the easier it is for people to vote, the more people will vote. Jersey must do better in respect of the location and number of polling stations. It cannot be right that in St Mary there is one polling station for 1,374 electors, while in St Clement there is one for 6,179.
More importantly, the best way to increase turnout is to make postal voting easier. In Jersey, legislation now allows all electors to have a postal vote, but it is far from easy, with people having to register separately to do so. Jersey should copy what most jurisdictions do, and have a postal-voting option on the voter registration form.
Just occasionally, Jersey can learn from Guernsey. In the 2020 Guernsey election the turnout hit 80%, with 67% of the electorate voting by post. In the 2022 Jersey election the turnout was 41%, and 8% of the electorate voted by post.
The second set of issues are much bigger, connected with trust in the political system, and outside the scope of this short article.
Two of the innovations used during the 2022 election did not work well. The first was the concept of a regulated period beginning four months before the date of the election.
It is standard practice in electoral systems that all candidates are put on an equal footing, with parliaments dissolved before the campaign period begins.
In Jersey, the opposite has always been the case, with sitting Members remaining in office until after the election.
During the last election the situation was made worse by the introduction of the regulated period of four months, during which potential candidates, not Members of the Assembly, were restricted in what they could do.
Existing Members, meanwhile, could – not unreasonably – continue campaigning for re-election under the guise of representing their constituents.
The second was the concept of voting for ‘none of the above’. If the concept has any merit at all then it should apply to every election – not just to those where the number of candidates equals or is less than the number of vacancies.
What matters is not the number of people who contest seats but the quality of those people. One good candidate is infinitely better than two hopeless candidates.
The concept gave official recognition to negative campaigning. In future, candidates facing ‘none of the above’ would be well advised to persuade somebody to put their name on the ballot paper and to do no campaigning, so there can be seen to be a ‘competition’– a dreadful example of form over substance.
This links to the one major outstanding issue that needs to be addressed. The rationale behind the new arrangements for 2022 was to comply with international standards on equality of voting power.
The Privileges and Procedures Committee originally proposed an Assembly of voting Members consisting entirely of Deputies, with Constables remaining as Members but without a vote.
The Assembly, having accepted the concept of equality of voting power, immediately contradicted itself by voting for Constables retaining their full role in the Assembly.
Few people are willing to put themselves forward for constable positions because of the heavy workload and dual nature of the function, and it is this that primarily explains why so many elections for constable are not contested.
The solution is not ‘none of the above’, but rather to look at the role of Constables and reconsider the proposal of the Privileges and Procedures Committee that they should participate as Members of the Assembly but without a vote. At a stroke, this would deal with the inequality of voting power issue and perhaps make the position of Constables more attractive.
Those Constables wishing to participate fully in the Assembly would largely be able to do so, whereas those who wanted to concentrate on parish activities would not feel obliged to have any role in the Assembly.
Sir Mark Boleat has held a number of leadership positions in companies, charities and public bodies in Jersey and the UK. He has been political leader of the City of London Corporation and leader of the Jersey Alliance.