Increasing democratic participation is a priority around the world and no more so than on election day.

Different countries take different approaches to encouraging citizen participation in elections - from holding votes at weekends as is common across Europe, or across multiple days like in India, to making polling day a national holiday as they do in Israel.

But here in the UK the way we vote hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. Ballots are still cast in person at your local polling station, via post or in some cases via a proxy.

Even this year’s pandemic election saw few changes in the way voting took place. Yet, while the way we cast our ballot hasn’t changed much, the rest of our democracy really has. 

Our constitution has been drastically altered in recent years; we’ve left the EU and seen new powers devolved to the nations and regions of the UK. In May we saw the first election in Wales where 16 and 17-year-olds, as well as foreign nationals living in Wales, were able to vote  - important improvements that open up our democracy.

Now Ministers have turned their attention to our elections themselves - looking at new ways of improving how we vote as well. This morning Welsh Government announced plans for a series of potential pilots at the Welsh local elections in May 2022 designed to modernise voting and reinvigorate our democracy.

These plans include putting polling stations in supermarkets and secondary schools, trialing voting on days beyond the usual Thursday, including early voting or voting over the weekend and the ability for people to vote in any polling station in their local authority area.

It's now up to local authorities to decide if they want to trial these ideas but it's safe to say that next May’s elections could look quite different in many parts of Wales.

So, why are the  Welsh Government doing this now? The truth is it’s because the current way we do things just isn’t working. 

Recent voter turnout paints a pretty dire picture of engagement in Welsh elections. Local election turnout at the last elections in 2017 was just 41 per cent. Our Senedd elections in May may have hit record levels but still saw less than half of registered voters take part with turnout at just 47 per cent. 

READ MORE: From shops to schools, where we may soon be able to vote

The idea of bringing voting closer to where people are makes sense. People have busy lives. Many aren’t going out of their way to head to their polling station to cast a ballot but might be more likely to if they could do it alongside their weekly shop in Tesco. 

Putting polling stations in secondary schools is also a positive step. Extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds was a significant moment in Welsh democracy but one that wasn’t followed up with a spike in youth registration or turnout. Early data from Welsh Government suggests only 40-45 per cent of eligible 16-17-year-olds registered to vote before the Senedd elections. 

The reality is, if we’re going to extend the franchise we also have to remove the barriers to participation that exist in our democracy. We know turnout among young people is significantly lower than the average for older generations and this is true in all UK elections.

We also know political education provision in Wales is patchy at best. So we have to make sure we're not just giving young people the right to vote, but the space and access that they need to do it.

In May’s elections many young people found they had critical exams on polling day and voting was not practically possible. Allowing voting on different days would give a lot more flexibility for young people to vote at a time that was convenient to them and polling stations in schools would make it even easier. 

READ MORE: Report shows Welsh voters ignored by Westminster elections 

The proposal to give people access to polling stations anywhere in their local authority area could also be a gamechanger. Not least as it would require the creation of a digital register, a computerised version of the paper list you see polling station volunteers ticking off when you go to vote.

For those of us that get excited about elections a digital register could unlock a huge amount of potential for our registration and election processes - including the potential for automatic voter registration, where people wouldn’t have to register to vote and would be automatically added to this new, digital register.

This kind of automatic registration is a step further than planned at the moment but would go huge strides in removing the barriers to registering to vote. 

These proposals are much needed and a welcome signal from Welsh Government that it wants more people to vote. Since devolution began we’ve had issues with turnout and the reasons behind that are complex, ranging from a paucity in media provision to a lack of understanding of what the Senedd and Welsh local government actually does. 

It is hard to escape the reminder that turnout isn’t a Welsh problem in itself. Turnout from Welsh voters in the 2019 UK General Election was 66.6 per cent, less than a percentage point lower than the UK average. In other elections turnout in Wales has actually been higher than the UK overall. Welsh voters vote, just not as often in Senedd or local elections. 

Therefore, it is right that Welsh Government is looking at the problem of turnout and taking new and innovative steps to improve it. Changing the way in which people vote isn’t a panacea, the issues that lead to low engagement are long established and complex, but they are a step in the right direction in removing the barriers to having a say in our democracy.

Jess Blair is director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru. 

If you value our contribution to the national conversation, help grow our team by becoming a subscriber.