After low municipal election turnout in 2015, the city council tasked the municipal secretariat, headed by election officer Dick Ekeroth, to find measures to increase voter turnout.
Four years later, in 2019, voter turnout in Fredrikstad increased by 4.4 percentage points – from 53.6 to 58.0 per cent, according to the Municipal Profile.
One of the measures was to employ democracy guides, who worked to promote local involvement and freedom of choice in Fredrikstad.
– The Democracy Guides’ task is to engage more people to exercise their right to vote, says Ekeroth.
“Can I vote?”
Management student and city council candidate Filsan Warsame (24) has long been concerned with democracy.
In 2019, she was one of the democracy guides who contributed ahead of the local elections.
During her time in the job, she encountered many different questions related to the election, the most common of which was: “Can I vote?”.
– People came to us and asked “can I vote?”. It was difficult to answer, because we do not know the backgrounds of those who come away. In most of these cases, we had to refer to the information desk.
– Many also wondered which party they should vote for. We couldn’t answer that either. The democracy guides could not say anything about what kind of politics the various parties pursued, our task was only to inform about the practicalities.
Despite having to remain objective, Warsame had an appeal for those who were unsure about what to vote for.
– If people did not find a party they agreed with, we encouraged them to vote blank. Then you show that you do not agree with any of the policies pursued by the various parties.
– Wants diversity
Now the municipality is looking for new guides between the ages of 16 and 30 who will work towards the municipal elections in 2023.
– The democracy guides have the task of informing about where you can vote, who can vote and how to vote. They must also answer questions about why you should vote, says Dick Ekeroth.
In the hiring process, emphasis is placed on commitment and language skills.
– We want diversity among the guides. That they have different experiences and backgrounds is important, says project manager at Demos Fredrikstad, Ellen Reiss.
She works to get young people involved.
NOK 250,000 set by the municipality
This year NOK 250,000 has been set aside for the democracy guide initiative, which will mainly be used for salaries for the guides.
– The economy in the municipality is tight these days, is it important to prioritize 250,000 on this project?
– Yes, I think it is important that people use their right to vote. It is important for democracy that we get as many people as possible engaged to run. In 2019 and 2021, we received extra funds for this measure, but this year this is covered within the ordinary budget set aside for conducting elections, Ekeroth replies.
– Democracy is under pressure in many places in the world, and then we have to work to maintain the commitment and belief that you can use your voice to make a difference, adds Reiss.
Signs that it works
– The goal is to increase voter turnout, how much faith do you have that the democracy guides can contribute to that?
– The Democracy Guides are only one of the initiatives that we are launching, but I believe that the information work the Democracy Guides do will remind people that it is important to use the right to vote and that it produces results.
According to the Tankesmien Agenda, the democracy guides were only stationed in the districts of Selbak and Nøkleby ahead of the local elections in 2019. The voter turnout there was the lowest at the local elections in 2015.
– We can document that in the areas we focused on in 2019, it had an effect on turnout. We increased turnout more in those constituencies compared to other areas, says Dick Ekeroth.
– After all, turnout went up in 2019, and we believe that the democracy guides are an important part of that result.
Despite his great confidence in the project, Ekeroth is careful not to be too hopeful in 2023.
– In 2019, turnout was 58 per cent, what is the target in 2023?
– The aim is that there will be more, but an exact number is difficult to come up with.
Other municipalities are following suit
Fredrikstad was the first municipality to introduce the democracy guide scheme.
Ekeroth says that they have received inquiries from, among others, Oslo, Lørenskog, Nittedal and Drammen who want to follow suit.
– Democracy guide has become a well-known term, and politicians are now asking whether similar measures should not be initiated in other municipalities, he says.
– It is exciting that many other municipalities will follow in Fredrikstad’s footsteps.