LONDON (AP) — The voting booths were empty and deep piles of ballot papers were left untouched — Britain named its first-ever elected police and crime commissioners Friday, but voter turnout was the lowest in recent history.
Though the commissioners will be responsible across most of England and Wales for appointing chief constables and setting budgets for police departments, Thursday's vote failed to stir interest.
Authorities said that in the southwestern England county of Wiltshire — the first area to announce its results — just 15.8 percent of people eligible to vote had taken part.
By contrast, Britain's 2010 national election had a turnout of 65 percent of eligible voters.
A previous low, a 1999 election for the European Parliament, saw a turnout in Britain of 24 percent.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government had hailed U.S.-style elected police commissioners, along with directly elected city mayors, as ways of shifting power away from Parliament and into the hands of local communities.
But voters in several cities rejected the plan for mayors earlier this year, and the police votes failed to generate much enthusiasm.
Cameron defended the elections, saying "the turnout was always going to be low, when you're electing a new post for the first time."
"But remember, these police and crime commissioners are replacing organizations that weren't directly elected at all," he said.
Despite the low turnout, the elections brought some good news for the main opposition Labour Party, whose candidates took 32 percent of votes cast — more than the 27.7 percent won by the Conservatives — and won in several key areas, including the major city of Manchester.
Labour also triumphed in three special elections for House of Commons seats, including the bellwether central England seat of Corby, which it won handily from the Conservatives.
The highest-profile police commissioner candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, was defeated in the northern English city of Hull.
Prescott, who served in ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government, lost to Conservative candidate Matthew Grove.