Factometer: fiction

The claim
“We’ve had a phenomenal turnout – probably the highest turnout in 30 years.”
John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, BBC News, 7 May 2010

The background
It may have been one of the most exciting elections in recent memory – but as the polls closed at 10pm last night, queues of people around the country were turned away before they had a chance to vote.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg apologised to voters in his Sheffield Hallam constituency who had waited for hours but did not get to put their cross in the box.

Sheffield returning officer John Mothersole was put on the spot at the count by the BBC. He apologised for the problems, and said the authority had been “caught out by a large number of students”.

He also talked of a “phenomenal” turnout – probably the biggest in the last 30 years – being to blame (there’s a video interview at the bottom of the BBC article).

Was this really the biggest vote rush since Margaret Thatcher swept to power?

The analysis
The short answer is no. On a national level, turnout stands at just over 65 per cent (with two seats still to declare), with more than 29-and-a-half million votes cast.

That’s higher than the last couple of elections, but a fair bit lower than all the others in the past 30 years: 1997 (71.4 per), 1992 (77.7 per cent), 1987 (75.3 per cent), 1983 (72.7 per cent) and even 1979 (76 per cent).

Locally, turnout in the Sheffield Hallam constituency was above the national average – 73.7 per cent, or 51,135 votes cast.

This was around 10 percentage points up on the constituency turnout in both 2001 and 2005. It was also slightly higher than in 1997 (72.4 per cent) and 1992 (70.8 per cent).

But turnout in 1987 was higher than that of this year – 74.7 per cent, or 55, 410 votes cast.

We asked Sheffield council what Mr Mothersole’s claim was based on – or if he might have boosted the turnout in the heat of the moment. Mr Mothersole was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman said it would be safe to say “one of the highest turnouts in 30 years”.

The verdict
Phenonmenal turnout? It was high nationally compared to the past couple of Labour victories – but certainly not the highest since 1979.

In the Sheffield Hallam constituency where queues of voters were turned away, turnout was higher than the national average. But it wasn’t the highest in the constituency in the last 30 years – 1987 took that crown – nor was it much different to that of 1997.

High turnout wasn’t the only reason the Sheffield returning officer gave when apologising for the voting problems and it’s only fair to point out that he hedged his claim by saying it was “probably” the highest in 30 years. But in the light of the morning-after statistics, we rate his claim as fiction.