Just over 50 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in Wales’ 1997 devolution referendum.

Since then, the Assembly has become a Parliament, but never have more than half of Welsh voters turned up to vote in one of its elections.

Various reasons have been presented as answers to why Senedd turnout is so low. Some hold the view that most people in Wales do not really care about ‘that building down the Bay’, others argue not enough attention has been paid to the Senedd by the newspapers and websites Welsh people consume their news from.

In the last twelve months, the pandemic has meant the role of the Senedd and the power the Welsh Government holds over our day-to-day lives has become all apparent.

Whereas Welsh first ministers used to maintain relative obscurity in comparison to their UK counterparts, you would now be hard pushed to find many people in Wales who could not identify Mark Drakeford.

Add the fact the next Senedd will be the most powerful ever, and you would be safe to assume turnout is finally going to peak above 50 per cent. Right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Another democratic defecit?

The National Wales: The 50 per cent mark still looms on the horizonThe 50 per cent mark still looms on the horizon

What we do know is that since its inception, turnout has never really got going in Senedd elections.

A modest 46 per cent in the 1999 election remains an all-time high. When Wales went to the polls in a referendum on law making powers for the Senedd in 2011, a little over a third of people turned up.

If we use turnout as a tool to measure interest and engagement, neither has matched the pace at which the Senedd has developed into a fully-fledged law-making parliament.    

To some, that is a democratic deficit in itself.

Variation across Wales

Of course, turnout does vary geographically across Wales. The constituencies of Brecon and Radnorshire and Ceredigion have both returned an average turnout of 54.3 per cent over the course of the first five Senedd elections.

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is the only constituency where turnout has peaked above 60 per cent, a feat achieved just once in 1999.

On the other end of the spectrum, five constituencies have never had turnout reach 40 per cent, let alone 50.

Alyn and Deeside records an average turnout of just 32.9 per cent. In 2003, less than a quarter of voters turned out in the constituency.

A party link to turnout?

The National Wales: Turnout is lowest on average in Labour 'safe seats'Turnout is lowest on average in Labour 'safe seats'

Of the 20 constituencies that make up the bottom half of the turnout league table, all are Labour seats.

It is worth noting that Labour currently occupies 27 of the Senedd’s 40 constituency seats, and many of those are seats in its traditional heartlands of the valleys and north east that have never not been red.

There is an argument then that these seats are ‘too safe’ to warrant high turnout. Voters are more inclined to turn up when they feel their vote could make a difference to the outcome.  

There is an issue to this rationale, however. The four constituencies with the highest turnout have also never swung between parties in Senedd elections.

If you remove Cardiff North from the ten constituencies with the highest average turnout, they have one thing in common: they are predominantly rural. Remove Brecon and Radnorshire, and they are seats occupied by Plaid Cymru or the Conservatives.

How does the Senedd stack up?

The National Wales: When compared to other devolved parliamentary elections, Wales' turnout lags behindWhen compared to other devolved parliamentary elections, Wales' turnout lags behind

Whatever the reasons for Wales’ lower turnout, Senedd elections do not perform well compared to most relevant comparisons.

Firstly, when you compare Welsh voter turnout between Senedd and Westminster elections, more people turn up for the latter.

In 2017 68.6 per cent of the Welsh electorate voted in the UK General Election, that number dropped slightly to 66.6 per cent in 2019, but that is still some 20 per cent higher than at any point in Senedd elections.

Compare Wales to Scottish and Northern Irish elections and once again Wales doesn’t match up well.

The gulf is even greater when compared to elections in devolved administrations in Europe, with both the Basque Country and Catalonia well out in front.

In the early days of the Senedd, low turnout could have been put down to the fact the Assembly lacked the power of its more grown-up equivalents in Belfast, Edinburgh, Barcelona and Vitoria-Gasteiz.

However, since 2011, the Senedd has had power over much of Welsh life.

For Jess Blair, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, its time Senedd elections witnessed an upturn in turnout.

Ms Blair told The National: “Really, 21 years on from its creation, we should start to see a change.

“We know Wales does not have a problem with turnout generally, as the turnout rates in UK General Elections is comparable to other parts of the UK.

“Where Wales differs is in its comparison to say Scottish Parliament turnout. I think that is indicative of a democratic deficit in Wales.

“Lower turnout demonstrates some people may feel that it is less important, but in the past year people have seen devolved decision making in action.

“The franchise has changed, that may impact turnout, and the pandemic has obviously illustrated what the Senedd and the Welsh Government are responsible for.”

Does turnout really matter?

Regardless of turnout, the Senedd will continue to elect members who will continue to form governments.

Internationally, several countries that rank highly on democracy indices have modest turnout. In 2019, just 45 per cent of registered Swiss voters turned out in their national election. In 2017, less than 54 per cent of the electorate turned out in their national election in 2017.

Of course, these countries’ parliaments are long established and aren’t straight comparisons with Wales.

For Cardiff University’s Professor Laura McAllister, turnout is a source of credibility in the face of calls for devolution to be scaled back or removed entirely.

“Turnout matters in a climate where ten to fifteen per cent of the population would openly support abolishing the Senedd.

“Low turnout would not matter so much if there was no voice for abolition, but as there is, now more than ever higher turnout would act as a tool of legitimacy.”

Will we get to the ‘magic 50’?

Speaking to The National, polling expert Professor Roger Awan Scully, said: “Turnout is really difficult to predict, and it is an area where polling is less successful.

“The current climate means there is the overwhelming media coverage is on the pandemic as opposed to the election and there will be little on the ground campaigning.

“Having said that, the US Presidential Election saw the highest number of people voting ever and there have been other examples of elections with high turnout.”

SENEDD EXPLAINED:

No party advocates for lower turnout, its counterintuitive. They will all want to ‘get their vote out’ on May 6, and attempt to pick up new voters who will likely come from two camps.

The first is those who have chosen not to vote previously, voters engaged with Senedd politics for the first time. Last week, Welsh Tory leader Andrew RT Davies said his party need to reach out to conservative voters in Wales who have not voted before.

Then there are the sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who will be given the vote in Wales for the first time.

There's more to play for than ever.

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