Election turnout drops in Scotland as emotion drains from polling

Turnout was down across Scotland for last weeks snap general election, but the figure remains high compared to the turn of the century. Picture: Neil Cross/JP
Turnout was down across Scotland for last weeks snap general election, but the figure remains high compared to the turn of the century. Picture: Neil Cross/JP
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Turnout was so high on the day of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence that rumours on social media quickly spread that one polling station near Falkirk had closed by 5pm as all voters in the local area had already cast their ballot.

The story was false - all polling places must legally remain open from 7am-10pm regardless of how busy they are - but it captured the widespread awe that Scots were exercising their democratic right in record numbers.

The 84.6 per cent turnout in 2014 remains a record for any UK vote since the introduction of universal suffrage.

A year later and turnout in Scotland was 71.1 per cent for the general election - five points higher than the UK figure and an increase of seven per cent on 2010.

Opinion pieces were swiftly commissioned by London-based newspapers asking if there had been a “reawakening” of democracy north of the border.

But at last week’s snap election turnout dropped in all but three of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, with an overall figure of 66.4 per cent.

The biggest drop was in Dunbartonshire West, down 8.7 per cent on 2015, while the lowest figure was in Glasgow North East, which recorded a turnout of just 53 per cent.

“Given the tremendous turnout for the referendum, the big question was would it continue in further elections?” said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling. “There was a bump, but I now think we’re slowly going back to normal.

“Turnout was still higher in 2017 than in the previous three general elections. So it remains fairly high. It just looks low compared to 2015, which almost looks like a freak now.

“I think we’ll look black and view that turnout as a blip. There are now signs of voting fatigue.

“In the last few years in Scotland we’ve not had just had elections, but also two emotional referendums.”

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Polling experts have previously suggested the rise in turnouts in Scotland looked so exceptional given how low they had fallen at the turn of the century.

By pre-1997 standards, a turnout of 71.1 per cent is nothing special.

“It’s not just voting or taking part in marches that classes as political involvement,” Professor Ailsa Henderson, head of politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, told The Scotsman in 2015.

“There’s a quiet element to it. That could mean people sitting at home reading about politics, whether in print or online, and considering the different arguments relating to policies.

“Scotland is more politically engaged - but there is a big caveat. Yes voters are far more likely to say that Scotland has changed or that they have become more engaged.

“No voters are far more likely to say that Scotland will return to normal and that they personally are not more engaged.”

Paul Sweeney, the new Labour MP for Glasgow North East, said turnout was historically low in his constituency.

“I always thought 2015 would be a high watermark,” he said.

“It was something I discussed with my campaign team. We wanted to visit areas that traditionally did not have a high turnout and try and energise them with our manifesto.

“But in the end we did not have the time so we had to focus on areas we knew had a high density of Labour voters.”

He added: “The 2014 referendum was a uniquely emotional vote. It galvanised a lot of people and there was a certain backlash following that.

“There was a 57 per cent Yes vote here.

“But we’ve seen voters are now ready to come back to Labour.”