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Votes should be on different days; COMMENT.

EVER since the National Assembly was set up in 1999, turnout in successive elections has been disappointing.

When only 46% of the electorate voted in the inaugural election, there was quite a bit of handwringing in the political class. Sadly, however, that turnout figure has not been topped since: in 2003 it was a dreadful 38.2%; in 2007 it rose to 43.7%; and in 2011 it was back down to 42.2%.

Turnouts at such a level are not much better than those seen at council elections, and sadly detract from the credibility of the Assembly as our national democratic forum.

Surely, then, something that would greatly increase the number of voters participating in an Assembly election would be a positive development? The suggestion that David Cameron has homed in on May 5 next year as his preferred option for the in/out EU referendum could provide a simple way to boost turnout.

As is often the case, however, what superficially appears to be an attractive proposition does in fact have serious drawbacks.

The turnout figures from past Assembly elections themselves illustrate the problem involved in seeking to engage the Welsh electorate. More than half the potential voters haven't participated in Assembly elections because they don't see it as important enough a body.

Since the last election, however, the Assembly has gained primary lawmaking powers and it is now on course to acquire more financial powers. It's important that a greater effort is made to persuade more people to vote for their local and regional AMs - and that as much as possible they vote on issues that relate to public services in Wales.

Achieving such an outcome is a considerable challenge because a significant proportion of Welsh residents get their news from outlets that barely cover Welsh politics. The concern is that if the Assembly election is held on the same day as the EU referendum, the Wales-specific agendas being pursued by the parties will be overshadowed by a UK-wide debate even more.

There may be a higher turnout in the Assembly election as a result, but it would be directly as a consequence of many people deciding to vote in a referendum covering a completely different subject. The Assembly election campaign would be swamped by network coverage of the referendum, and even fewer voters would engage with Assembly related issues than has been the case in the past. Far from broadening participation in a Welsh poll, the referendum would dominate public discourse to the detriment of the Assembly election.

Wales deserves to have a day when the political focus is on electing AMs, not when many votes are cast incidentally by those who have turned out solely because they want the UK to be in or out of the EU.

There are more effective ways to increase voter turnout than this: making voting a legally enforceable civil duty would ensure that everyone played a part in the democratic process.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 8, 2015
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