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Snow, parties, Christmas cheer: December elections can be risky but do they hurt turnout?

The UK’s general election will the first December election since 1923.

Boris Johnson during his time as London Mayor in 2010.
Boris Johnson during his time as London Mayor in 2010.
Image: PA Images

WE MAY NOT be having one in Ireland, but the UK is to hold a winter election six weeks from today.

The nationwide vote will be the first December election since 1923 and the first one held in winter since 1974.

Holding an election during winter, and especially so close to Christmas, is often seen as a bad idea for a number of reasons.

There’s the problem of politicians canvassing on dark winter evenings, there’s the cold and rain and even the general feeling that people would rather be thinking festive thoughts and not about who to vote for.

There’s also the argument that it actually makes holding the election more difficult and leads to a lower turnout. So what is the reality?

Is the weather a factor?

Anyone who pays any attention to election days in Ireland will hear reference to the weather affecting turnout. If the numbers at polling stations are low during a rainy polling day we will hear it being blamed as the cause.

While this may be a factor, it is often just one of many. For example, a low turnout in Ireland’s presidential election in 1997 has been put down as much to an expected win for Mary McAleese as poor weather on the day.

In the UK, general elections have been in either April, May or June on every occasion since 1979 following two winter elections in 1974.

The first of those in February 1974 achieved the highest turnout in the last 50 years despite conditions close to freezing in some parts.

PastedImage-64971 Source: parliament.uk

Polling guru Professor John Curtice has been speaking about the influence of an election’s timing this week and pointed out that the UK’s record turnout of 83.9% was in 1950 when it was held in February.

He told the BBC this week that he suspects the importance of Brexit to people will mean that “a spot of bad weather will not keep them away”.

“We have a level of commitment to Remain or Leave of kind we have not seen in party politics since the 1960s. This has become an issue which deeply exercises the public. One would anticipate they will turn out,” Curtice said.

investitures-at-palace-of-holyroodhouse Pollster from the University of Strathclyde John Curtice. Source: PA Images

Researchers at Oxford University have similarly said that there is no correlation between weather and turnouts.

There is one exception to this: snow.

While rain may not affect the ability of people to vote, snow could literally make it impossible.

Severe snowfalls could not only make it impossible for people to vote but it could even stop staff at polling centres and count centres to get where they need to be.

Already, the confirmation of a December election has led to wild speculation in British tabloids that a return of the Beast from the East could hit preparations.

Despite this, most meteorologists agree that predicting severe weather six weeks out is impossible, and even then it’s worth remembering that the previous ‘Beast’ in 2017 hit in early March, not December.

One issue that will certainly be a factor is the number of hours of daylight being fewer in winter than in summer.

Swathes of the UK will also only have around eight hours of light between sunrise and sunset and the issues is particularly acute in parts of northern Scotland like Shetland.

What about Christmas parties?

There are practical concerns about having an election in December, however, with people having less spare time and public spaces being already booked out.

Councils often book polling stations and count venues months or even years in advance of an election but this causes problems during the festive period.

Nativity plays, Christmas markets and pantomimes will be booked in for many village halls, sports centres and theatres. So finding free venues – particularly in small communities – is likely to be very tricky.

Laura Lock, deputy chief executive of the UK’s Association of Electoral Administrators, accepted as much when speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week.

“We have issues getting polling stations generally,” she said ahead of the confirmation of the election date.

There’s less and less public buildings available for people to use, but one of the key challenges that we have in December is that the polling stations already have bookings.

“For May polls, they’re expecting us on the first Thursday in May. Here, we’re not even convinced all of the time that the election will take place on a Thursday. So, this morning I’m sure that our 2,000 members will be getting on the phones trying to book polling stations provisionally for 12 December.”

- With reporting by Press Association  

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Rónán Duffy

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