I have often pondered when is the optimum time to deliver a class in order to maximise student attendance. After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that it is sometime just after lunch on a Tuesday. I wonder if the same principles might be applied in order to maximise student turnout in elections.
In my experience Tuesday is the day of the week on which students are most likely to appear in class and by extension in the polling booth. Mondays and Fridays are clearly to be avoided, a proportion of students each week will choose to spend their weekends away from their place of study, visiting home, partners or friends in other parts of the UK and beyond. Many will choose to make it a long weekend by leaving early on a Friday and/or postponing their return until a Monday.
Wednesday is also problematic. In most UK universities Wednesday afternoon is set aside for non-teaching activities by sports teams, societies and so forth. These activities can often spillover into Wednesday morning, particularly if, for example, the university tiddlywinks team has to travel to an away match in some far flung corner of the UK. Moreover, if Wednesday afternoon activities are successful this can prompt a degree of celebration on a Wednesday evening which can also impact on Thursday’s attendance.
Of course many students, and not just those undertaking sporting activities, are well known for combining their studies with a certain amount of social interaction. In most university cities in the UK students’ unions and local clubs will set aside one night during the week as a ‘student night.’ Teaching staff quickly learn when this is by the rows of bleary-eyed faces and empty seats in any class the morning after. For the reasons explained above, student nights do not usually take place on a weekend. However, they are also rarely on a Monday, with Wednesdays and Thursdays being the most common, by which time most students presumably feel they have completed a significant proportion of their week’s work and deserve a night out.
Which leaves Tuesday as the day on which students are least likely to be distracted by other preoccupations.
There is also the question of when is the optimum time of day for the polls to open. As anyone who has taught at nine in the morning will be acutely aware, opening polling stations early in the morning will have little impact on student turnout. Indeed it is apparent that some students are almost nocturnal and opening polling booths from 10 in the evening until 7 the morning would therefore be the most effective way of increasing the student vote. However, if one does not want to impose this on the rest of the country I do believe there is a window of opportunity, not too early in the morning, and not too late to impinge on other activities, sometime shortly after lunch, say from 1pm until 3pm on a Tuesday when most students might be expected to vote. Moreover, given that some students will inevitably claim that they are unable to vote because that is the one time in the week when they are able to attend classes, it might be a good idea if universities cancelled all classes for those two hours on polling day.
Consideration might also be given to changing the electoral calendar. Elections in the UK have generally been held in spring, and the month of May in particular, to take advantage of good weather and light nights while avoiding obvious holiday periods. The timing of general elections has now been fixed in May under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. However, this does not fit well with university calendars. In May most students at UK universities are in the middle of exams. They are rightly preoccupied with their studies and in many cases return home to revise away from the distractions of university life. This is not the ideal time to expect them to find their polling station and go out and vote.
In contrast, it is well known that students’ willingness to engage in new activities peaks shortly after arriving at university in the autumn term. It is at this time that students sign up to numerous societies (some of which they will never attend), agree to represent their peers on staff-student committees and form new friendships some of which will endure for the rest of their lives, while others will not make it past Freshers’ week. Returning students also often begin each university year with a new found commitment to their studies and a raft of good intentions. Holding elections in the autumn is therefore perhaps the best time to ensure students both register to vote and then actually vote. Some time in late October, before the clocks go back, might be effective, although this perhaps leaves too little time for voter registration. Early November might be preferable. US Presidential elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and this might be an appropriate example to follow, and may help those (engineering) students who don’t understand why we don’t get to vote when the rest of America does.
Of course holding elections in November does hold out the prospect that turnout will be affected by the weather. The UK crime commissioner elections were held in November 2011 and received the lowest turnout of any UK election, which some attributed to the timing of the election. However, research undertaken in Sweden has found little correlation between the weather, and particularly rainfall, and electoral turnout. Moreover, in the UK while temperatures are often lower in November than in May, there is often less rain. Indeed, in six of the last ten years there has been less rainfall in November than in May, unless of course, one is studying in Manchester when the rain will, of course, continue as a background drizzle all year round.
It may then be possible to increase student turnout simply by tweaking the timing of elections a little so that UK elections now fall on a Tuesday in early November, while universities ensure that students register to vote in the first week of the autumn term, and agree to cancel all classes for two hours between 1 and 3 in the afternoon of polling day. Simple.