Battling for supremacy in Wester Ross

Martin, Senior Elections and Campaigners Adviser, tells us about his experience observing a by election in Wester Ross. No, not that one.

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Game of Thrones returned to our screens this week for the eagerly-awaited final season. Over the next six episodes, followers of the show will finally discover who amongst the Starks, Lannisters, Greyjoys, Baratheons, and Tyrells etc., will battle their way to supremacy over the kingdoms of Westeros and take the prize of the iron throne.

While Westeros is a fictional place created by George R. R. Martin, Wester Ross is very much a real place. Located in the North West of Scotland, the area is renowned for its remoteness and the raw scenic splendour of its mountains and coastline. The area is also popular for its range of wildlife including many eagles and the ever present red deer – but no dragons that I saw.

Like its fictional counterpart, Wester Ross is no stranger to battles for supremacy – thankfully of the non-bloody kind. This Commission representative recently had the pleasure to observe a Highland Council by election for the Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh ward. The ward stretches from Atlantic Ocean in the west to the North Sea in the east and is reputed to be the size of Belgium – I didn’t measure it.

Running a by election over such a large rural area, and in the middle of winter – winter is always coming in Scotland – presents particular challenges for the Returning Officer and her team. For such a large area, the electorate for the ward was only around 9900. There are more red deer in Wester Ross than voters!

25 polling places were in use on polling day, including one in Opinan that turned out to be someone’s home. It was a pleasure to journey between many of the polling places and to meet the many friendly, tea-providing volunteers who gave up their time to support the democratic process. All the polling station staff I met were friendly, well-prepared, professional, and all seemed genuinely enthusiastic about participating in the process.  Along the way I had hoped to drive over the famous Bealach na ba to Applecross. The pass is one of the highest roads in Great Britain – but sadly it just got too dark and I didn’t fancy the hairpin bends at 2000 ft. Next time perhaps.

There were a few characters along the way, such as the husband and wife team at Garve Village Hall, and the presiding officer at Poolewe who informed me that she was nearly late in opening the poll due to red deer on the roads – something I later discovered myself after it got dark at 4pm. It’s a bit spooky driving single track roads in the pitch dark, but thankfully the White Walkers were nowhere to be seen.

The role of observing at an election, from the Commission’s perspective and that of accredited observers, is to ensure that the poll is conducted in a transparent manner and in accordance with the law. Certainly all of the polling station staff and the candidates that I spoke to were complementary of the support they received from the Returning Officer and her staff throughout the process.

If you are interested in observing at an election, you can find out more about our Electoral Observer Accreditation Scheme.

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Update from Northern Ireland – looking ahead to the local council elections

Voters in Northern Ireland go the polls on 2 May for the local council elections. Everyone involved in elections wants to ensure that voters are able to have their say with confidence.

We are urging people to make sure they are registered to vote before the deadline for applications on Friday 12 April. Our ‘Got 5?’ campaign is promoting the new online registration system on TV, radio and billboards. We are pleased that around 85% of applications to register are now being made online rather than using the old paper forms. The online registration system is working well and is certainly quicker and easier for electors.

What the public are telling us

At the same time, our most recent survey of the public – which we will be publishing in full in the coming weeks – showed some concerning results for Northern Ireland. Across the UK, satisfaction with registering to vote and voting is high. However, respondents from Northern Ireland are generally less confident and satisfied with how elections and the electoral registration process are managed.

While across the UK seven in ten electors are confident that elections are well run, less than half of people in Northern Ireland (49%) share this view. In addition, 56% of respondents from Northern Ireland are satisfied with the voting process compared to 77% from England, 72% in Scotland and 74% in Wales.

When it comes to registering to vote, 73% of respondents from Northern Ireland are confident with the registration process compared with 90% in England, 93% in Scotland and 85% in Wales.

These figures also show a significant drop when compared to previous electoral events in Northern Ireland. At the last Assembly election in March 2017 nearly nine in ten people (86%) told us they were satisfied that the election was well-run and eight in ten (82%) said they were very or fairly satisfied with the process if registering to vote. At the UK general election which followed a few months later 78% expressed confidence in both how the election was run and the registration process.

So what has happened?

This research doesn’t ask people why they feel they way they do or seek reasons as to why they feel less confident. We don’t have any evidence that directly explains the change in attitudes in relation to the actual administration of recent elections or the registration process. However, we do know from other research that when asked why they are not confident or satisfied, respondents often give reasons related to mistrust or dislike of politicians/political parties and a lack of information.

Political uncertainty, both in Northern Ireland and across the UK, is likely to be a factor. The Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t been in place for more than two years, and the MLAs elected in March 2017 have not been able to form an Executive. As such one can ask if the absence of devolved government has had an inevitable negative impact on voter confidence.

Three weeks ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland laid legislation to postpone the requirement to call an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly until the end of August this year. As the independent body which oversees elections we are naturally concerned about the postponement of an election that is due. We have expressed these concerns to the Government.

Although we recognise the specific circumstances and difficulties at this time in Northern Ireland, we have noted the Secretary of State’s confirmation that if an Executive is not formed by the end of August, then she will fall under the duty to propose a date for an Assembly election. We will continue to closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland to ensure that the needs of voters are put first.

Political campaigning

Our survey did reveal some concerning findings when it comes to political campaigning and transparency across the UK. Negative perceptions of the transparency of the system in Northern Ireland reflect findings elsewhere in the UK. For example only 41% of respondents in Northern Ireland agreed that authorities, such as us, would take appropriate action if someone was caught breaking the rules around political finance. Almost half of those surveyed in Northern Ireland disagreed that it was easy to find information on how parties, campaigners and candidates are funded.

Our survey also found that a majority of the public in Northern Ireland (58%) agree with us that information on donations and loans received by political parties over the last five years here should be made available to the public. Only 15% of people thought this information should be kept confidential. We are continuing to call on the UK Government to change the law to allow us to publish this information.

Looking ahead

In uncertain times, all of us in the electoral and wider political community have a responsibility to ensure that the concerns of the public are addressed to maintain integrity and confidence in our democratic processes. We will be continuing to support and monitor political campaigning and elections to ensure that voters are put first, and that integrity and confidence in our democratic processes are maintained.

Ann Watt, Head of the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission

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Why we are developing a prosecutions policy

There has been coverage this weekend, and theatrical ‘fury’ – first reported in the Sunday Telegraph – about the Commission’s developing plans to begin undertaking prosecutions. It is assumed that we plan to move to taking landmark cases through the courts and, in an extraordinary leap, that Leave supporting groups will then be “unfairly targeted”.

The truth is – as is so often the case – more mundane than it first seems. Over the last 18 or so months we have taken a measured approach to developing a prosecutions policy. This would enable us to deal with lower order offences in a way which is swift and proportionate, freeing up the resources of the police and prosecutors and delivering more effective regulation of political finance to support public confidence. It is primarily focused on the ‘long tail’ of smaller parties which occupy a large part of our work but rarely make the headlines.

This is a natural progression of the work we currently undertake, and a well-trodden path for public regulators, supported by the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It is set out in our five year corporate plan, published in June 2018 and approved by Parliament via our oversight committee of MPs. We have also been speaking to the main Westminster parties about this work for some time through formal channels, as well as the Police and CPS. While this shift in approach does not require a change in legislation, we will be consulting in due course.

This is not the first time in recent months that a manufactured controversy has been directed at the Commission. The current political climate is highly charged, of course. We have been wrongly accused of bias. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the sources of the criticism is Matthew Elliot, the former chief executive of Vote Leave. That organisation has been found to have committed significant breaches of electoral law. It is rarely the case that the regulated, and sanctioned, will be supportive of giving the authorities additional powers.

Civil servants, parliamentary officials and judges have all been recipients of similar criticisms. Like them, we take transparency and scrutiny seriously; like them, too, we continue to do our work with rigour, expertise and impartiality. We are an independent parliamentary body, and conduct our duties with scrupulous fairness. Constructive scrutiny is welcome, but those politicians and parts of the media who for a political agenda at a particular moment in time make unsubstantiated assertions, should instead consider their public duty to speak responsibly.

In our line of work, equal treatment at the start of investigations does not, of course, mean balanced outcomes. We have undertaken around fifty investigations on campaigners across the leave and remain outcomes, and followed the evidence to identify wrongdoing to a criminal standard of proof. It is a matter of simple fact that where offences have been found, these have been weighted more heavily to the leave outcome campaigners.

In our dealings with Members of Parliament we hear a strong appetite for robust, proactive regulation of political finance. We hear warm support for increased enforcement powers and resources for the Commission, including the ability to levy higher financial sanctions. Backed by this support, we will continue to adopt a measured but proactive approach to our work, in defence of a strong democratic process and the public interest. Our politics is not corrupt and for the most part our politicians honest and law abiding. What is there to fear from a regulator taking action where evidence of wrongdoing emerges, and sanctioning those found to be in breach of the law?

Bob Posner, Chief Executive, Electoral Commission

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See democracy in action at UK elections through our modernised electoral observer scheme

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Independent observation is a crucial part of our electoral process. It helps to ensure that elections are carried out in a transparent, accessible, impartial and secure way.

In 2006, the UK introduced a scheme that allowed individuals and organisations to observe at elections. After more than ten years in operation, we decided it was time to review the scheme, taking into account lessons about how it has worked to date.

This summer we held a consultation to seek views on the scheme and our proposed changes to the Code of Practice for observers. We heard from a range of stakeholders – from those with experience of taking part in the scheme to those who administer elections. All respondents largely welcomed the changes we had proposed. Based on their feedback, we have made changes to modernise the electoral observation scheme, making it easier for people to take part.

These changes include:

  • A new online application process
  • A redesigned electoral observer ID badge to distinguish between Electoral Commission staff and accredited observers
  • Improved guidance for electoral observers and those running elections.
  • The introduction of a voluntary feedback mechanism for electoral observers that can be used from the next scheduled elections in May 2019.

Become an Electoral Observer

Electoral observation is a great opportunity to see how UK elections are run. From the issuing of the postal ballots to polling stations and the counting of the votes, electoral observers are able to see our democracy in action. They can choose whether to inform the electoral officials in their area that they intend to observe – but also have the option to make unannounced visits if they wish.

It is not all just watching other people work – observers can also make an impact on how elections are run. For example, they can choose to give feedback to the people who organised the election in their area or to the Electoral Commission on what they’ve seen to help improve future elections.

Anyone over the age of 16, including those from outside of the UK, can apply to become an electoral observer. However, each observer must maintain the secrecy of the poll and act with political impartiality at all times.

As part of the changes we have made to the electoral observer scheme, you can now complete your application online on our website.

Ailsa Irvine, Director of Electoral Administration and Guidance

 

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The South Thanet case makes clear the urgent need for electoral reform

By Bob Posner, chief executive of the Electoral Commission

Earlier this week, Marion Little, a senior member of Conservative HQ, was found guilty of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence during the 2015 general election. The trial focused on election campaigning in the Kent constituency of South Thanet, where the Conservative Party’s Craig Mackinlay stood against UKIP’s Nigel Farage.

Mrs Little, who worked on Mr Mackinlay’s election campaign, was found to have deliberately exceeded the campaign’s spending limit and to have “created dishonest documents to hide what she had done”. In his sentencing remarks, the judge Mr Justice Edis, described Mrs Little’s offence, as a “crime against the public”, which breaches “the trust which the public places in its great political parties”. His comments made clear that these offences were committed deliberately and knowingly and were not honest mistakes resulting from confusion. Serious crimes indeed, and ones which go to the heart of public confidence in our democratic system.

The case – which cleared both Craig Mackinlay MP and his election agent, Nathan Grey, of any wrong doing – was brought by Kent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. While we at the Electoral Commission did not have a role in the police’s decision to investigate, nor the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to prosecute these three individuals, we were in full agreement with both decisions.

It is, of course, vital that offences under electoral law are properly investigated and we hope the outcome of this case, and the significant custodial sentence handed down (in this instance suspended for an exceptional, very understandable reason), will deter others from committing such offences at future electoral events. It does of course explain why such a trial was needed and counters the spurious assertion from some quarters that the case was a waste of public money.

In the aftermath of the trial, many have commented on the need for electoral reform to ensure the law is clear and easy to understand. Candidates and agents have important duties. For very much the most part, candidates and their agents understand this, are well-intentioned and meet the standards set out in the current law and as reflected by our guidance documents, guidance commended for its clarity by the judge in this case.

None the less, we agree that electoral reform is needed, and needed urgently. We have been calling for some time for this and other parts of electoral law to be reviewed. Much as we would like to be able to make these changes ourselves, electoral law is, quite rightly, set out by parliament and any changes must be made by the UK’s governments and parliaments.

With limited scope to make changes ourselves, the Commission has spent the last six months addressing the areas which are within our gift to enable parliament to change. We recently consulted on new Codes of Practice to make sure, to the extent we are able to, that there is further clarity and consistency in reporting election spending. The Codes will provide even more clarity for candidates, agents and political parties about what items of spending count towards the spending limit and are to be reported; and about when spending should be in a candidate return and when it should be in a political party return. We are currently evaluating the responses and look forward to the Government putting the Codes before parliament later in spring.

But reform must be further reaching than that. We have called on the government to extend our regulatory role to cover campaign spending by candidates and agents. Currently our remit covers political parties and campaign groups only. This means that when an MP, candidate or political agent is suspected of breaking the law, as in the South Thanet case, the police are the only body which can investigate. Electoral law is complex and prosecutions are rare, indeed the jury in the South Thanet case spent more than 50 hours deliberating the verdicts. Moving responsibility for candidates and agents into the Commission’s remit would free up police and court time and provide for a more proportionate regulatory system that can, where appropriate, apply civil law fines rather than criminal convictions. It would mean investigating police officers were not diverted from their other duties, and were not required to operate in legislation that is far from their day to day role.

This recommendation covers only one important part of electoral law. Yet the rest of electoral law, from rules governing imprints on digital materials to those on handling postal votes, is in need of modernisation. We continue to urge the UK’s governments to implement, in full, the recommendations made by the Law Commission in 2016. Now is the time to take this forward, before our system is further tested at future electoral events, scheduled or otherwise.

 

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My reflections on three years as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive

It has been a privilege I have very much enjoyed leading the Electoral Commission over the past three years and playing a part in its evolution into a modern regulator.

As well as delivering an unprecedented number of electoral events it has been important to all of us with an interest in democracy that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and we have continued to work to modernise our system in order to meet voters’ expectations.

In my time as Chief Executive, we have consistently called for the law that underpins elections to be reformed. It’s almost unthinkable that some of the laws that dictate how our elections are run date back to the 19th century. While some small changes have been made, and I very much welcome these, we’d like to see much wider reform. Updating our electoral system so that it’s more in tune with the way people live their lives is being given quite serious thought in Scotland and Wales in particular, and I will be following developments with interest.

Advances in digital campaigning have also moved into the spotlight during this time and I am proud of the way the Commission and its staff has risen to the challenges that face regulators across a number of different sectors. We have played a leading role in contributing to the debate about how to maintain transparency for voters in the digital era. More remains to be done, and some of the thorniest parts of the debate remain to be tackled but I am confident they will be if regulators, policy makers and those representing voters work together.

This year started with celebrations of the centenary of some women first getting the right to vote. It has been such a pleasure to see so many organisations, schools, local authorities and elected representatives mark this change to the law right throughout the year. There is still more to do to make the democratic process accessible to all and improvements must be made so that any voter with a disability can have their say with confidence, something we covered in a recent report.

I want to finish by paying tribute to electoral staff across the UK who ensure that polls are well run; allowing voters to have confidence in the electoral process when they mark their ballot papers. It requires hard work and dedication from an army of volunteers to run a poll – from polling station clerks to people who count the votes into the early hours of the morning in a council sports hall. One my personal highlights is the warm welcome I have been given by electoral administrators as I have observed polls right across the UK. Things never stand still in the electoral world, but if there’s one thing I’m sure about, it is that the elections staff on the ground have an unwavering commitment to ensuring that voters are able to have their say and exercise their democratic right. For that, they have my thanks, and those of the Commission.

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive

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Girlguiding launch their new programme, including a voting badge

In the year where we are celebrating 100 years since women were first given the vote, Girlguiding have launched their new programme, including a voting badge for Rangers.

A guest blog by Emily, 17, Girlguiding Ranger

Emily, Girlguiding Ranger, at Downing Street

Emily, Girlguiding Ranger, at Downing Street

As a history and politics student, I was incredibly excited to see the introduction of the voting badge, and chose it to be the first of the new badges I completed. The first task I needed to complete was creating my own political party. This wasn’t something I had ever thought about before, but I soon realised how many details I needed to consider. From a slogan to the main issues my party would tackle, a catchy name to how I would recruit members, my party, the Young People’s Party soon began to take shape! To complete the next section of the badge, I needed to come up with a way to tackle voter apathy. To do this, I interviewed members of Youth Parliament and created a blog page for young people, explaining the importance of voting. I chose to do something online as I believe social media and online outlets are the way to capture the younger generations. The final, and easiest thing required to complete the badge was to register to vote. Five minutes of my time and a few clicks online and not only was I registered and ready to go and vote, but I had also completed the voting badge!

The badge has helped me to think even more about the importance of voting and getting involved in politics, the complexity of political parties, as well as prompting me to get registered to vote. Although I had a prior interest in politics, I do think this badge would appeal to everyone, and presents politics in a fun and interesting way. It’s great that organisations like Girlguiding are raising awareness and encouraging greater political engagement amongst young people through things such as this voting badge, particularly in such a prominent political year!

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