Will Sheffield turnout for the elections?

Sign at a polling station
Sign at a polling station
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Candidate campaigns are in full swing to get the message out to voters for the looming local and mayoral elections - but is it working?

Today electors headed to polling booths to cast their vote on who will represent them and their neighbours on issues such as social care, planning and environment.

For the first time they will also get to choose a Sheffield City Region mayor who will, when plans have been put in place, be in charge of bringing more power and money away from Westminster to South Yorkshire when the drawn out devolution deal is finalised.

The Government spent a total of £60,000 on promotion for the mayoral elections. Around £273,000 of that was spent on the information booklets which started to land in homes across the region weeks before polling day for which candidates paid £3,000 to have their profiles in. All with the intention of informing voters.

Yet year on year the Electoral Commission report low turnout for local elections, and low turnout at the mayoral elections in other regions, with people attributing a lack of information as the main reason.

This is particularly true for 18 to 34-year-olds, who said they felt less informed than older generations, despite the “youthquake” of last year’s general election which saw the largest number of young voters head to the ballot box in 25 years.

Professor Charles Pattie, expert in voters and elections at The University of Sheffield, said it is easy for people not to notice local elections.

“Call it the 'busy life' effect," Professor Pattie said, "most of us have lots of different things to do, and can't do everything on our mental 'to do' list, so we prioritise: we're more likely to do things that matter and less likely to do things that don't. General elections, for example, are a higher priority than local elections for most voters.

“Add to that the effects of campaigning - general elections generate very noisy and visible campaigns. Parties are active, especially in marginal seats. There's lots of discussion on TV, radio, newspapers and the web when big issues are often at stake. Local elections generally excite much less party activity or media comment. It's easier for voters not to notice that local elections are happening.”

He added that young people in particular are even less likely to vote in local elections as many are yet to develop a voting habit.

“[One cause of low youth turnout is] possibly anxieties about how to vote, especially if others among one's friends and family are also non-voters.

“Voting is a habitual activity - the more you do it, the more you are likely to keep doing it - and younger voters haven't yet caught the habit. Parties may not be as effective at mobilising young voters as they are at mobilising older voters.”

On the streets, Sheffield’s youth had a lot to say on the importance of voting, despite not feeling very in touch with the Council.

Hannah Frances McCreesh, aged 24, from Kelham Island and works in marketing, said politics can be very daunting.

“I think it’s incredibly important for young people to have their voices heard and be able to shape the future of their local area.

“A lot of young people feel very disengaged when it comes to politics. It’s so important, yet people who never did it at school, like me, turn 18 and, let’s face it, likely don’t have a clue about politics, yet we are able to go out and vote.

“It’s very daunting having to learn all about the different parties and what they stand for and we don’t have the benefit of experience to know if they’re likely to live up to what they claim in their manifestos.”

Thomas Lowson, 23, from Grenoside, said despite being very interested in politics he feels councillors could do more to reach out to younger people. He added: “If you have the chance to vote - you should definitely do it. I’m a very staunch Labour supporter and follow them on social media and I try to keep up-to-date with stuff.

“I think young people often get a bad rap about not being proactive, being disengaged, so I think it’s important for young people to use their vote to say we are here and we do matter.”

Some confessed not knowing there was an upcoming election and all those asked admitted not noticing the council’s promotion on social media.

Even many students, who have a reputation for being politically active, said they do not feel empowered to vote in the upcoming elections.

Luke Renwick, activist and president of the Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union, said most students are unaware they can even vote in local elections at home and university.

He said: “A lot of students don’t even know they can vote at university even though they would.

“Politics encompasses every aspect of our lives. It regulates every little thing we do and interact with even at a local level.

“One day you may need to call on these people if you need help with something. And knowing what they stand for is important as that has an impact on the community and your neighbours. It’s almost like a civic duty to participate in the local elections and it’s the first time you can vote in the mayoral elections here so why not?”

With the increase of people aged 15 to 24 since 2001 being double that of the national average and one of the largest student populations in the country, young Sheffielders would certainly shape local politics if they felt more empowered to vote.

So, what can councillors and hopeful candidates do? Unfortunately, Professor Pattie said there is no “magic bullet solution” to get more youth, or any eligible people, to vote.

Some Sheffielders suggested signs around the city promoting the elections like the snooker world championships and Doc/Fest, others said councillors need to make more effort to meet young people, while others suggested election engagement should begin in schools with compulsory politics lessons.

Moya O’Rourke, final year student and Labour councillor for City Ward, said people know more than they think and need to vote to have a say in what happens to their area.

“To those who can vote in the upcoming local elections, to do it is vital”, she said, “Without your vote, your ownership, your input and your values for your local area are limited. Frequently, canvassed people tell me they ‘don’t know enough about politics’. That is not true. You know your home, however temporary, and that’s what’s invaluable.”

Voting closed at 10pm and the results of the local and mayoral elections will be announced by tomorrow afternoon.