So despite Peter Robinson’s concerns that it will confuse voters if the ballot on voting reform, it seems that the AV Referendum will happen on the same day as both the Assembly Elections and the local council elections – 5th May 2011.
Following the totally unpredictable SNAFU around local government reform, readers will recall that the plans to condense the current twenty six local authorities down to eleven super councils next year has meant that Councillors in NI have been without a real electoral mandate since 2009 when elections should have been held.
These were abandoned in anticipation of the 2011 changes at which the number of councillors was intended to fall (though not as dramatically as the number of Councils – the super councils were expected to have a larger number of Councillors each leaving Northern Ireland with about 80% of the original 528 elected positions surviving).
So it could reasonably be expected that Northern Ireland will have a much larger than average turnover of Councillors in 2011. The longer electoral cycle will be one factor. A larger factor – one that I picked up at a National Association of Councillors meeting a while ago was a widespread feeling among councillors (admittedly, before the 2011 reforms fell through) that the reduced number of places and the changes meant that it was time for a change. As Alan picked up a while ago, there are already a lot of co-options there facing their first electoral test (both in the Assembly and local councils) and a larger number of older councillors than usual will be standing down this time.
So this will be a much more disrupted election than most. The confusion caused by AV, the higher-than-average lack of incumbency and the amount of water that has flowed under the bridge will all, in turn, have some knock-on to the Assembly results.
One question that I’m not entirely clear upon: How strongly are the NI parties going to campaign on the AV referendum – and how is this going to impact on the results? I suspect that SF regard it as an unwelcome distraction and the UUP will follow the Tories in campaigning against it (though I’m happy to be corrected on both of these points). The DUP are opposed and the SDLP are in favour of it. Will they want to distract from their wider message by spending much time talking about an issue that will have a low priority for the voters?
As Brian noticed a while back, this puts Northern Ireland in an odd position: The fact that the referendum is happening on the same day as a big election in Northern Ireland means that there is likely to be a larger turnout for the AV vote by comparison with the rest of the UK. It is, however, an issue that local politicians are likely to downplay in order to de-clutter their message. So we will have a situation where the place that has had the lowest quality of debate on the subject will have a disproportionately high impact on the result?
And I’ll finish off with an opinionated provocation for you: I hate referendums. They’re profoundly undemocratic for a variety of reasons and I regard the idea of using them to decide our electoral system is about as good an idea as using trial-by-combat to pick a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Northern Ireland’s disproportionate impact on the UK’s AV decision is another argument to add to the list.