No barriers to voting – enabling the voices of those with learning disabilities

 

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Last Thursday we published our report on accessibility, ‘Elections for everyone’.  The feedback we received from disabled voters about their experiences at the UK Parliament elections made it clear that something needs to be done, and governments, electoral staff, candidates and parties, and the Commission all have a role to play in this.

You can read our report here.

We have been working with ENABLE Scotland for a number of years, to ensure that both the voting process and information about how to register and vote are accessible for people with learning disabilities.

ENABLE Scotland provides a wide range of support services for people who have learning disabilities and their families in Scotland. Together with their 5,000 members, they campaign for an equal society for every person who has a learning disability.

We will continue to work with partner organisations, like ENABLE Scotland, to help us fully understand the needs of voters with disabilities and make sure that elections are truly accessible for all.

Read ENABLE Scotland’s Executive Director of External Affairs & Strategic Development, Jan Savage’s blog on the importance of accessible elections:

At ENABLE Scotland we believe in, and work for, and equal society for every person who has a learning disability. But being part of an equal society means having a say in how the country in which you live is run.
Last year, statistics revealed that, on average, only 30 percent of people who have a learning disability vote in elections. In contrast, 70 percent of people who have a learning disability said they wanted to vote, but 60 percent said they found the process too difficult.

enable blog quote 2It wasn’t just the numbers telling a powerful story. You only needed to attend one of our local ACE Group meetings, where our members meet to talk about important topics such as welfare reforms and employability, to know that people who have learning disabilities have a lot to say about the issues and decisions that affect them.

We just had to help make their voices heard. We had to #ENABLEtheVote.

The #ENABLEtheVote campaign

First launched in the build-up to the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, our #ENABLEtheVote campaign set out to make the voting process and politicians much more accessible to people who have a learning disability.

The first step in the process was connecting people with their local politicians, so that they could quiz their potential representatives on the issues that mattered most to them. More than 200 people attended our accessible hustings events across Scotland, bringing their own questions on issues such as social care, employment, transport, accessibility, social security and much more.

But we had to amplify the message to more than just the attendees of our hustings. Together with our members, we campaigned for all political parties to make their manifestos available in Easy Read format, so that as many people as possible could access and understand what each party was promising. The result was a landmark success, with 4 out of the 5 main political parties producing easy read manifestos for the first time!

The final critical piece on the campaign trail was to make the voting process itself much more accessible. For this, we partnered with the Electoral Commission to produce a range of accessible voting guides to support people who have a learning disability, and their families and carers, through the voting process. These resources had a tremendous impact and the final result was much more than a marginal gain – with 80% of people who have a learning disability that participated in #ENABLEtheVote using their ballot on election day.

Our shared success

The campaign’s success continued into 2017 in the build up to the Local Council Elections. In addition to delivering an increased number of accessible hustings events – 18 in total – and a suite of new Easy Read materials, we collaborated with our members to develop a manifesto which outlined how prospective councillors could #BeTheChange for people who have learning disabilities. Politicians across the political spectrum pledged their support for our members’ manifesto and 91% of the people who have a learning disability that took part in the campaign used their vote in the Local Council Elections.

The voices of our members and supporters who participated in #ENABLEtheVote have gone on to contribute to national debate at the highest level, with their MSPs directly raising issues identified by them in the Scottish Parliament. Only last week during a crucial debate on inclusive education, MSPs paid tribute to our members for bring this issue to their attention during local meetings.

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The #ENABLEtheVote campaign won’t stop there. You only have to look at the news to see how increasingly complex the UK political landscape has become. In the days of ‘fake news’ and challenging economic outlooks, we must continue to focus our efforts on removing any barriers that prevent people who have a learning disability or any other support need from engaging in the voting process. After all, our political leaders are here to represent everyone. Every individual with a ballot paper should have the opportunity to make an informed choice about the future of their society on polling day.

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Elections for everyone

Katy Knock, Electoral Commission Policy Manager

I am very excited that last week we published our report – ‘Elections for everyone’.

It has been a while since we have heard about the experiences of people with disabilities when they register to vote and cast their vote, so I am glad that we are able to reflect their views today based on their experience of the general election held on 8 June.

I would like to thank everyone who responded to our questionnaire and told us about their experience. This report could not have been written without you.

I am also pleased that we are able to feed into the Minister’s, Chris Skidmore MP, Access to Elections call for evidence, using first-hand experience of people with disabilities.

Registering to vote and voting should be a good experience for everyone. But it isn’t. 

Some people with a disability told us that they do not have the confidence to register to vote and cast their vote. Others said they have many obstacles to overcome so that they can cast their vote.

We were told that election forms are not always easy to read or understand so that people know what they have to do: that they use complicated and unfamiliar words, jargon and small print.

We also heard that some people had not been able to vote at their polling station as they could not get in or they were turned away. This should not happen.

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We must not forget that accessibility is not just about getting into the polling station and not only about people with a ‘visible’ disability. People with different disabilities faced a number of barriers once they were inside. They said it:

  • was small and hard to move around
  • was too noisy and there were too many people which made them feel anxious
  • that staff did not know about the tactile voting device or if they did they did not know how to use it
  • that people could see how they voted so they were unable to vote in secret

Some people also told us that they did not know that they that they could take someone with them to the polling station to help them or that polling station staff could help them.

We asked people to tell us what they thought about how parties and candidates tell people about what they stand for.

We were told that the information they get from candidates and political parties is not always easy to read or to understand. They also said they would like to get information earlier because it gives them longer to look at it and decide who to vote for.

Although parties published their manifestos in good time before the general election, their easy read versions were not always available until later and often very close to Election Day.

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What next?

We have listened to the views of people with disabilities. There are changes that we can all make to tackle the barriers that exist.

The Government should:

  • make changes to election forms so they can be easily understood
  • look at different ways that people with disabilities can vote so they have greater flexibility and choice
  • change the law so that people with disabilities have more choice about who they can take to the polling station with them

Political parties and candidates should:

  • make sure the information they send is easy to read
  • make sure they publish easy read manifestos at the same time so people with a disability have the same time as everyone else to understand what the parties stand for and make an informed decision
  • make sure they send information in good time so that people have time to read it.

People running elections should:

  • look at ways they can make registering to vote and voting more accessible
  • look to make their helpline more helpful
  • make sure they are ready to support anyone if they ask for help to vote

Carers and support workers need to know:

  • people with disabilities can vote
  • they can support the people they care for to register to vote and vote

The Commission will:

  • continue to work with the Government and disability organisations to see what can be done to make registering to vote and voting accessible for everyone
  • update the information we give to people running elections and will talk to accessibility groups about what should be in it.

Everyone should be able to register to vote and cast their vote.  I look forward to continuing to work with the Government, disability organisations and electoral administrators to put some of these measures in place to ensure that elections are for everyone.

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Responding to the rise of digital campaigning

Bob Posner, Electoral Commission Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel

Effective campaigning is, and always has been, an important part of elections and over the last few years we have seen this move more and more into the digital realm. With this we have seen an increase in more sophisticated uses of data, more personalised and targeted messaging, and the capacity for campaigners to do much more, at a lower cost than ever before.

The Electoral Commission is responsible for regulating and enforcing the rules made by Parliament that govern political campaign finance in the UK. While it is for political parties and campaigners to determine how best to use the campaign techniques now available, our priority is to make sure that appropriate transparency is maintained and to ensure voters’ confidence in the system.

The current political finance rules apply equally to modern forms of campaigning and to traditional ones, with voters entitled to expect the same transparency. Digital campaigning brings a scale, speed and specificity that cannot be matched by leaflets, billboards or other more familiar types of political advertising, but it is regulated in exactly the same way. Campaigning can only be financed from permissible donations, payments made for digital campaigning must be reported to us, and we will publish them as we do with all campaign spending.

We have a responsibility to enforce the political finance rules and have specific powers to do so. Alongside this, we also have a wider responsibility to look forward and report to the UK Government and to Parliament about how electoral law might be improved or modernised to reflect changes in campaigning techniques. We have made some important proposals in this area before, such as that online campaign material – like its printed equivalent – should be required in law to include an imprint stating who has published it. We have also recommended how the law might be amended to make campaigners report more detailed breakdowns of spending, including on different types of advertising. The time has come for these important matters to become legal requirements.

Utilising our experience of regulating the Scottish Independence Referendum, the EU Referendum and the recent general elections, we are considering the use of digital campaigning alongside our electoral system. We are taking a wide definition of digital campaigning for these enquiries, including the use of data held by parties, campaigners and social media companies to target campaign messages, how political ads are used on social media, and the use of automated bots.

Should our enquiries provide us with evidence that the existing campaigning rules about political finance may have been broken then we will undertake our own investigations as set out in our Enforcement Policy. As is our normal practice if we believe other, criminal, offences may have been committed, then these will be referred to the police for investigation. Where we feel that a wider change to the law is required, or action needed by others, then we will report to the UK Government and to Parliament as we are required to do. We will also make direct recommendations to Scottish and Welsh government and respective legislatures, where they have remit to consider changes to the law.

We will not be looking at the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including mis-information; despite some misconception, this is not within the remit of the Electoral Commission. That does not mean that government and parliament may not wish to consider such matters.

Our enquiries build on learning from our investigations and post electoral event reports. They include discussions with parties and campaigners that use digital campaigning and discussions with social media companies about how their platforms are used and how their proposed self-regulation would operate. This includes speaking to Facebook and Twitter about political advertisements during the referendum and general election. We are already working with the Information Commissioner’s Office about the inquiry it is conducting into the use of personal data in politics, and with other bodies, and we will also seek to work with others with expertise in this fast changing world. This work will help us as we consider the implications for the way campaign finance rules apply to digital campaigning.

It is for the Government, and ultimately Parliament, to determine whether changes should be made to the law and, if so, what they should be; but behind our work remains a determination that campaign finance laws are fit for purpose and that parties and campaigners will comply with them.

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To what extent are charities affected by the “Lobbying Act”?

Bob Posner, Electoral Commission Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel

I recently read with interest a blog by the Minister for Civil Society, Tracey Crouch MP suggesting the perceptions about the impact of the “Lobbying Act” are more damaging to charities’ campaigning than the reality.

At the Electoral Commission, we agree with the UK Government that it is primarily misplaced perceptions of the rules rather than the rules themselves that might cause a ‘chilling effect’ amongst campaigners. Media headlines and commentary that exaggerate what campaigners can and cannot do during an election adds to this confusion. However, we also recognise that the suggestion that the Government does not have any parliamentary time to implement Lord Hodgson’s 2016 proposals for changing how third party campaigners are regulated during election periods will not be welcomed by many third sector campaigners. While we believe the system works, that’s not the same as saying there isn’t room for improvement.

Charities and other non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and, as a society, we must encourage their active participation during, as well as outside of, election campaign periods. The non-party campaigner rules have been in place since 2000 and they do not prevent third parties from campaigning or engaging in public debate. The rules only regulate how much is spent on campaigning that can be reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters’ decisions and the outcome of an election: where a significant amount of money is being spent on this type of campaigning, the rules require individuals and organisations to register with us and declare their spending.

It is right that voters can see who is spending that money. It’s difficult to see the arguments against this. And this is what the rules are aiming to do: They are primarily intended to provide voters and the public with transparency, rather than to limit the ability of campaigners to engage.

At the general election in June, 53 individuals and organisations registered with us as non-party campaigners, and we will shortly be publishing the spending returns of those which spent over the £20,000 reporting threshold. So it is clear that non-party campaigners are continuing to campaign during elections. However, we must be alive to the risk of some disengaging from campaigning during elections out of misplaced fear about the rules – particularly in light of the recent news about progress towards implementing Lord Hodgson’s proposals.

The reality is that, in many cases, non-party campaigners will not even spend enough to be subject to the rules. Where they do, only campaigning which targets voters and the public is covered. So costs of activities such as lobbying Ministers to make changes to government policy, or activities aimed at your members, will not even be covered by these rules.

We also know that applying the 365 day retrospective regulated period caused concern for some non-party campaigners during the June election, but in many cases little or none of an organisation’s activities carried out before the election was called will have met the tests to count as regulated spending.

Clearly, a non-party campaigner is very unlikely to be reasonably regarded as intending to influence people to vote in an election when they do not know that the election is happening.  Therefore, an activity is very unlikely to have met the tests and be counted as regulated spending with regard to the 2017 UK Parliamentary general election if it occurred before Theresa May announced the election.

While we agree that some of Hodgson’s recommendations would have improved the regulatory framework for non-party campaigners, we also understand that some of his proposals would have been impractical to implement. Now that there will be no legislative reform to the rules, the government and others, ourselves included, must look for ways to work with campaigners to change this perception of the legislation so that charities and other organisations can confidently continue their campaigning work. Tracey Crouch has said she wants to work with the sector to tackle any confusion and misplaced perceptions about the rules and we are happy to continue to play our part in this.

We are confident that the guidance we publish in advance of electoral events accurately reflects the legal framework and explains the rules clearly. We aim to ensure that the rules on party and election finance are complied with, and that people throughout the UK are confident in the integrity and transparency of party and election finance. We seek to work effectively with stakeholders and those we regulate to encourage trust in the regulatory system and aim to regulate in a way that is effective, proportionate and fair, always taking the facts of each situation into account.

As ever, we are always here to offer non-party campaigners advice and guidance about the rules and we will continue to work with them to ensure that they fully understand what it is that they can do. You can find more information on the non-party campaigner rules in our guidance.

In November we will publish a report on the 2017 general election, some of which will look at the role of non-party campaigners. We encourage you to keep an eye out for this and would encourage campaigners to approach us whenever you have questions about the rules. We hope this reassures non-party campaigners that, despite the changes introduced by the 2014 Act to the rules that have been in place since 2000 remaining in place, they will continue to be able to campaign during election periods.

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2017: A significant year for UK democratic participation

Find out about our new report which examines the 2017 elections from the perspective of those who voted, as well as those who chose not to. What can we learn for 2018?

By Craig Westwood, Director of Communications and Research, Electoral Commission

2017 has been a significant year for UK democracy. Local elections were scheduled for 4 May across Great Britain, as well as new combined authority mayoral elections in some parts of England. Only a few weeks into the year, on 16 January, a snap Northern Ireland Assembly election was announced for 2 March. Then on 18 April came the announcement of a snap UK general election on 8 June.

Our Voting in 2017 report provides an overview of public attitudes towards the process of voting and democracy in the UK. This is the first time that we have produced this kind of report, which looks across different polls – including different geographies, different franchises and different voting systems – to draw conclusions about the views and attitudes of UK citizens. The report is based on surveys with over 6,000 members of the public following the polls that took place in 2017, as well as on other insights from data gathered in relation to the 2017 polls.

Over 44 million votes were cast at the six different polls in 2017. Remarkably, at every poll, turnout was higher than at the previous equivalent election – most notably at the Northern Ireland Assembly and Scottish council elections.

At the UK general election the driving force behind much of the increase in turnout was the mobilisation of young people. Our research found that 18% of 18-24-year-olds reported that this poll was their first time voting, while only 3% of those 18-24s claimed this was because they had not been eligible previously.

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While up on previous elections, turnout at the local elections in May was significantly lower than at the general election or at the Northern Ireland Assembly election. As chart 1 shows, we found that young people were still far less likely than their older counterparts to say they had voted.

Well-informed voters are fundamental to the democratic process. We know that feeling informed is closely connected to the decision to turnout.

Our findings indicate a clear disparity in the levels of awareness at the 2017 local elections, between older and younger voters and between those who are more and less electorally engaged. For example, we asked people in England with local government elections if they felt they had enough information to make an informed choice on who to vote for – one third of all respondents, including nearly half of 18-34-year-olds, disagreed.

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Of course, motivation is important; we know those who want to vote will seek information. In the absence of the pervasive national media coverage that accompanies a general election, those voters that felt most informed about the May local elections relied on leaflets from political parties (62%), local authority (14%) and candidate websites (15%) as well as talking to their family and friends (14%) to equip themselves with sufficient information to cast their ballot confidently.

This underlines the importance of direct forms of communication and the work of parties and campaigners. With further local elections coming up in England in May 2018 – including across the whole of London – it is clear that more work needs to be done to ensure that information about these elections and about the candidates who are standing is reaching a wider audience.

Positively, most people continue to say that elections in the UK are well run – with confidence highest among those who actually vote and experience the system first-hand. However, there is no room for complacency and our research highlighted areas where we believe further work is needed.

While most people continue to be satisfied with the system of registering to vote, there is also support for further improvement, with two thirds supporting the idea of automatically registering electors when they are issued with a National Insurance number. We have recently published our assessment of the system of electoral registration and highlighted several such areas for improvement.

Finally, the perception of electoral fraud continues to be an issue at UK elections. While the vast majority believe voting in general to be safe, there remains a level of concern, albeit based more on media coverage than direct experience. In June, 15% of those that believed fraud had taken place thought the lack of ID had contributed to that belief. We have previously recommended the introduction of an ID requirement for voters at polling stations in Great Britain, as has been in operation successfully in Northern Ireland for some years. The UK government’s planned pilot scheme for voters to show ID at polling stations at the May 2018 local government elections is welcome; we will publish a full, independent evaluation of this by summer 2018.

Read more in our Voting in 2017 report or follow us @ElectoralCommUK.

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Time for modernising elections in Wales

By Rhydian Thomas, Head of the Electoral Commission, Wales

The Welsh Government has consulted on modernising the way local elections in Wales are conducted and today we publish our views on these proposals.

Areas being consulted on include extending the franchise for local government elections to 16 and 17 year olds;  improving electoral registration; ; modernising the electoral process; the use of the Welsh language in elections and making voting more accessible for voters while maintaining its security.

One part of my role as Head of the Electoral Commission in Wales is to make sure elected representatives have the information they need to assist them in making decisions relating to our changing democracy. While it’s not appropriate for the Commission to give a view on all the questions asked, such as the merits of making changes to the franchise or to voting systems, we have shared our experience and understanding from other parts of the UK and have made a number of recommendations on matters where we do have a view.

ENGLISH tweet2One important area addressed in our response is that of electoral registration. It underpins our democracy and therefore it is vital that the system puts voters first and is easy for people to access. After all, nobody can vote unless they are registered.

Many people today have an expectation that services should work together to get people registered. As proposed in the consultation, it is now time to move away from a system which relies on voters taking steps to register themselves, and instead develop an automatic or direct enrolment process which has the potential to deliver more accurate and complete electoral registers more efficiently than current resource intensive canvass processes.

When someone moves home they are generally faced with an arduous to-do list, from setting up utility bills and signing up with a local GP to working out when the bins are collected and where best to park the car. In all this, registering to vote is often low on many people’s lists and I am sure many people mistakenly assume they are placed on the register when they update their records with their local authority.

It is also the case that electoral administrators reported a significant number of duplicate applications were received in the weeks before both the May 2017 local elections in Wales and the June 2017 general election. By this I mean voters submitted new registrations, not realising that they were already registered to vote. We continue to recommend that an online ‘look up’ facility should be provided on a UK-wide basis for electors to check whether they are already registered and we are keen to explore options for enhancing the existing online registration service.

We think the registration system in Wales could also be improved by combining the electoral registers for each local authority into one single register for Wales. This could make it easier to share information when people move home and help identify duplicate entries, improving the accuracy of the register.

There is now a Wales Electoral Coordination Board which brings together the senior Returning Officers in Wales, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales and the UK Government. The aim of this group is to assist in enabling well run elections in Wales by coordinating policy on electoral matters and ensuring consistency of electoral management. We believe the development of this group is vitally important to bringing together the Welsh Government’s electoral modernisation programme and consideration should be given to how the role of the Board could be developed, in the medium to long term, to support Welsh Government’s overarching electoral modernisation programme.

ENGLISH tweet1It is time to modernise the laws governing our elections. Many of the rules currently in place have not been changed since they were introduced over 100 years ago. The Electoral Commission continues to support the recommendations to modernise and simplify electoral law made by the Law Commissions in 2016 and ask that the Welsh Government takes them into consideration when developing their proposals.

This is an opportunity for Wales to develop and showcase its modern democracy and we are ready to work with the Welsh Government to explore how their proposals can be implemented for the good of all voters in Wales.

Read our response to the consultation here.

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Our commitment to working bilingually in Wales

By Sioned Wyn, Welsh Language Adviser, Electoral Commission

To celebrate International Translation Day our Welsh Language Adviser, Sioned introduces the history of the Welsh language and why we work bilingually in Wales…

Shwmae (Hi)! I’ve been the Commission’s Welsh Language Adviser (Cynghorydd yr Iaith Gymraeg) since May 2013. Welsh is my first language, and it’s the only language I speak with my family and most of my friends. I’m not sure what would happen if I tried speaking in English with my Mamgu (Grandmother)!

You may be surprised to find out that Welsh is the oldest living language in Europe, dating back to the 6th century. Its roots are in the Brittonic language, which was spoken as far north as Scotland. While these days you’re not likely to hear a lot of Welsh spoken among the Scots, you can still see some traces of it in place names across Scotland, like Edinburgh.

Today Welsh is an official language in Wales. In fact, 27.8% of people in Wales are able to speak Welsh and all children up to the age of 16 learn the Welsh language in school, whether they attend a Welsh or English medium school.

The aim of the 2011 Welsh Language (Wales) Measure, where the Welsh language standards come from, is to make it easier for Welsh speakers in Wales to live their life in Welsh. The standards mean people have the right to ensure the services they receive from public bodies, such as the Commission and local authorities, are available in Welsh to them if they wish. It also follows on that making sure that all children in Wales learn Welsh is a little pointless if they don’t have any chance to speak it socially and in their day to day lives.

The standards vary between each organisation, depending on the work they do, and who their stakeholders are. But there is a common thread of equality – ensuring that people in Wales can use our services, documents and see our campaigns in the language of their choice.

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Here at the Commission we’re committed to ensuring that all communication with people in Wales is done bilingually in Welsh and English in line with the Welsh language standards. In practice, this means that we translate documents from English into Welsh for our Welsh audiences. Since March this year alone we’ve translated around 300,000 words!

The process of translation itself is not as simple as it may seem. It’s about creating new text and making sure that whatever the reader is reading, they believe it was written in that language. It takes time to consider sentence structure (which is very different in Welsh and English), and ensuring that the tone and feeling of the piece is carried over to the translated language.

Our commitment means that Welsh speakers can call us to ask about registering or voting and can contact us on social media through @ElectoralWales, @DyBleidlaisDi or Facebook.

Welsh is a part of who I am, and I’m proud to ensure that my fellow Welsh speakers can get the information they need to exercise their democratic right in the language they choose.

Get in touch with us on Twitter or email to get more info about the Welsh language standards.

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