It was the election that offered hope that Wales could finally break the not-so-lofty ambition of reaching 50 per cent turnout for the first time in a devolved election.

The pandemic had thrust devolution into the nation’s consciousness. People knew who Mark Drakeford was, and love him or hate him, they were going to vote in record numbers.

Yet, as the results started to roll in on May 7, it became clear that Wales’ general apathy to Senedd elections would continue.

Turnout did hit a record high of 46.6 percent, but that still leaves the uncomfortable truth that over half of eligible voters simply did not engage at the ballot box.

Those who had hoped that mythical figure would be reached were left disheartened. However, for Cardiff University’s Professor Richard Wyn Jones, the disappointing figure was less of a surprise.

“Turnout generally reflects the perceived perception of what is at stake,” Professor Wyn Jones told The National.

“Because we started out with underpowered settlement, there is a legacy and we have got into a habit of low turnout.

“There were also reasons to suspect that turnout would be depressed due to the pandemic, as has been seen in so called ‘regional’ elections in Europe.”

Mark Drakeford and his wife Clare after voting in Cardiff on May 6. Drakeford's profile rose during the pandemic, but that did not seem to translate to wider engagement. Photo: Huw Evans agencyThe pandemic has supressed turnout globally, but Wales still lags behind. Source: HuwEvansAgency

A surprise or not, turnout in Wales still lags behind other devolved nations. On May 6, turnout in the Scottish parliamentary election increased by 7.7 per cent to an all time high of 63.5. Of course, Scottish politics is currently supercharged by the question of independence, but turnout is now some 16 per cent higher north of Hadrian’s Wall than it is west of Offa’s Dyke.

Compare Wales to Northern Ireland, the Basque Country and Catalonia, and again Wales comes out losing the battle for engagement.

The picture does vary within Wales, of course. Constituencies that traditionally return a higher turnout did so once again, while seats where there has long been a problem did not see an upswing.

Swansea East recorded just 34.6 per cent, a downturn on the figure recorded five years ago. As usual, the twenty constituencies with the lowest figures all delivered Labour victories. Cardiff North, a Labour hold in a traditional marginal seat, delivered the highest turnout at just over 58 per cent, suggesting that the competitiveness of the seat has a direct impact.

For Jess Blair, director at the Electoral Reform Society, changing the very nature of how Welsh electoral politics works has to be the starting point to force change.

READ MORE: 'If not now, when?' for Senedd reform

Ms Blair told The National: “We need to take a long hard and honest look at what we do.

“We need to start with the basics and fundamentals. We need a larger more diverse Senedd and a new voting system that represents every person and every vote in Wales. We also need to introduce automatic voter registration to remove the barriers to voting.

“The reality is, there are no quick fixes, and many of these things should have been worked on a lot earlier.”

Ms Blair believes a new voting system would do away with the concept of so-called ‘safe seats’ and the complicated additional member system that blends first past the post with a regional list.

Senedd Members are currently considering wide-sweeping voting reform, and after ten years of apathy, large scale remedies may be the only solutions remaining. After all, even a pandemic that forced devolution into our daily lives for a year has seemingly done little to encourage people to take a walk to their local polling station.

Mark Drakeford and his wife Clare after voting in Cardiff on May 6. Drakeford's profile rose during the pandemic, but that did not seem to translate to wider engagement. Photo: Huw Evans agencyIs Wales' voting system partly to blame?

Swansea University’s Dr Matthew Wall believes that while the role of the Senedd and Mark Drakeford’s profile has been elevated during the pandemic, little has been done to actually increase the profile of the wider Welsh political landscape.

“My read is that it pushed Mark Drakeford up the agenda, but not Welsh politics. For example, a lot of what opposition parties were saying was falling beneath the radar,” Dr Wall told The National.

While the turnout figure makes grim reading, for Dr Wall, it is a symptom of a wider lack of engagement that must be addressed:

“If you want to make turnout higher overnight, you just make voting compulsory as they do in Australia and Belgium. There would be a 20 to 30 per cent rise, but you don’t necessarily get a more engaged public.

“That tick on at the ballot box is the product of a lot of thinking, and engagement is about a lot more than just the number of people who vote.

“The figures for the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) are a great example of that. While turnout in PCC elections has increased, it’s more because they are scheduled at the same time as other elections, not because more people are engaged.

“There are two long term factors influence engagement: a country’s media structure and a country’s political education.

“Generally, Welsh news is relegated to secondary status on TV, where most people still get their news, and the reporting tends to be quite depoliticised. Supply of Welsh news is getting better, but consumption isn’t there yet.

“On education, the detail in curriculum reform has been disappointing and the decision to lower the voting age almost feels like it has been used as a smokescreen for deeper structural issues.

“Increasing engagement is the hardest thing in the world, but when you have neither the political education, nor the news saturation, you aren’t going to see a leap.”

READ MORE: Drakeford vows to be radical in approach

For Professor Wyn Jones, this election did at least provide a couple of glimmers of hope, with the fact counting was carried out during the day as opposed to the night a welcome move.

“The BBC’s figures suggest around 1.2 million people watched some of the results programming – some half of the electorate, and that is astonishing,” said Professor Wyn Jones, who believes coverage during the pandemic and after polling day should give Welsh broadcasters courage.

“As somebody who took part in the coverage for S4C, the level of interest was so much greater and it was almost a festival of democracy, arguably something that we haven’t had since 1997.

“The truth is, if you are serious about democracy, you have to make it accessible. It does suggest that there is an audience for serious stuff and the last 15 months should give the broadcasters a bit of faith that they don’t have to hide stuff away in unsociable hours.”

Engagement with Welsh politics rests on all of us, however the heaviest burden rests on politicians themselves.

Wales’ political class now finds itself in an ever more powerful parliament, but lacking the engagement of the majority of people it serves. Abolish and UKIP may have departed the Senedd, but the shadow of legitimacy will continue to loom large despite their absence, and complacency will be adopted at their peril.

Potential solutions such as fixing the system used to elect its members, introducing more robust political education, and supporting media organisations are all within the Senedd’s gift; but are they gifts they are willing to give?

Fast forward to 2026 without serious structural change, and we may well be asking the same questions and fantasising about the woeful target of 50 per cent once again.

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