Registering the missing millions

Our Chair, Sir John Holmes, has reflected on the findings of the Commission’s major study of the December 2018 electoral registers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK’s 372 electoral registers are the cornerstone of our democracy. You have to be on a register before you can exercise your right to vote. Yet millions of people remain incorrectly registered, or are not registered at all. This should not be acceptable in a modern democracy.

Today the Electoral Commission has published its latest report on the quality of the electoral registers in the UK, the first such study since 2015. It shows that the system is far from working as effectively as it should, despite heroic efforts from Electoral Registration Officers. Around 17% of eligible voters in Great Britain are not correctly registered at their current address, representing as many as 9.4 million people. In Northern Ireland, 1 in 4 eligible voters – as many as 430,000 people – are not correctly registered. Meanwhile more than 1 in 10 of current entries on the registers is inaccurate.

Within these figures, young people, recent home movers and private renters are much less likely to be registered. The rate among 18-34 year olds in Great Britain is only 71%, compared to 94% of those over 65. People who have lived at their address for up to a year or between one and two years are significantly less likely to be correctly registered (36% and 71% completeness) than those who have lived at their address for longer (92% among those resident 16 years or more). And just 58% of private renters in Great Britain have up-to-date register entries, compared to 91% of those who own their homes outright.

These figures do not deviate significantly from previous surveys, but that does not stop them being shocking, especially in the digital age. They should be a call to action for all concerned.

Currently steps are being taken to improve the annual canvass by Electoral Registration Officers, traditionally the main method of identifying new electors or changes of address. This is welcome. Greater use of national data should help identify home movement, enabling resources to be directed to properties where updates to the electoral register are really required.

But this yearly audit of residential properties is costly and inefficient and is delivering declining results. The failure to improve registration levels despite previous reforms to the current system shows that we need a new approach.

At the Electoral Commission we believe that the future lies in going further, towards much more innovative use of national data already available, for the benefit of voters and the legitimacy of our democracy.

In July we published feasibility studies examining the potential for this kind of reform: giving local registration officers access to data from other public service providers; integrating electoral registration into other public service transactions; and moving towards automatic or at least more automated forms of registration.

If registration officers have access to data about people who have recently moved, this would allow contact with them directly at their new address to encourage them to register to vote. Integrating electoral registration applications into other transactions, for example applying for or renewing driving licences, could make it easier for individuals to keep their registration details accurate; young people soon to reach voting age could be registered automatically when they are allocated their National Insurance number ahead of their 16th birthday.

Our research shows that such reforms could be implemented without radically altering the structure of the electoral registration system in the UK. In particular, technology already employed by the Government – that which allows citizens living in the UK to register to vote online – could form the building blocks for the majority of the reforms.

There is real potential to make electoral registration easier for everyone and to tackle under-registration. What is needed is political will to make it happen. As another UK general election looms, rapid action to improve the accuracy and completeness of our electoral registers should be a priority, not a footnote.

Find out more about the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers on the Electoral Commission’s website.

Polling station 4-02

 

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New Electoral Commission guidance for charities: the Lobbying Act shouldn’t stop you from campaigning

Following the publication of new Electoral Commission guidance for non-party campaigners, Douglas Dowell, Policy Manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has written a blog outlining the impact this will have.

At NCVO, we’re always looking for ways to make the campaigning environment more supportive for charities. We’ve supported Lord Hodgson’s recommendations to reform the Lobbying Act and other electoral law for non-party campaigners. We’ve also worked to get government to make sure grants and contracts don’t constrain charities’ right to campaign.

Whatever we think about the law, guidance is also a large part of the story. In England and Wales, the Charity Commission’s guidance on political activity is helpful for interpreting what charity law means for your campaigning all year round. But the Electoral Commission’s guidance on what electoral law means for your campaigning in the run-up to an election hasn’t been clear or reassuring enough. As a result, it’s made lots of charities think the rules are more restrictive than they actually are.

Today, the Electoral Commission is publishing new guidance on the non-party campaigning rules – what we often refer to as the ‘Lobbying Act’. This is the guidance that’s relevant to charities – or at least, some charities, as we’ll see. We’ve worked closely with the Electoral Commission, along with ACEVO and Bond, to make it as helpful as possible. We think the new guidance will give charities more confidence to campaign in regulated periods.

Registration thresholds – most charities don’t spend enough to register

The new guidance makes it clear that charities who don’t spend enough on activity regulated by the Electoral Commission (‘regulated activity’) don’t have to register. Regulated activity means something that could be ‘reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters’ – more on that below. The limits are:

  • £20,000 in England
  • £10,000 in any one of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

So even if you are carrying out regulated activity, if you’re not spending over these limits, you don’t need to register. (Though remember there are also limits on spending in any individual constituency.) So most charities don’t need to register with the Electoral Commission.

Charities are different and the guidance recognises that

We’re really pleased with the clear acknowledgement in the new guidance that charities are obliged not to be partisan by charity law. The guidance says that if charities follow charity law and guidance from charity regulators, they are generally unlikely to be carrying out regulated activity under electoral law. This means that most charities, so long as you are following Charity Commission guidance on political activity, don’t need to register with the Electoral Commission.

The purpose test is now much clearer

The language on the ‘purpose test’, one of the tests which determines whether what you’re doing counts as regulated activity, is clearer and sharper. The legislation itself refers to activity being ‘reasonably regarded as intended to influence’ voters. This has caused a good deal of confusion among charities, and the new guidance should help in interpreting it. In particular:

  • The old reference to whether your activity includes a ‘call to action’ has been narrowed to ‘call to action to voters’. This is one of the factors campaigners need to consider when deciding if activity meets the purpose test, and a lot of charities understandably worried that virtually all campaigning involved some kind of call to action. The new wording makes it clearer that the Electoral Commission is not considering all campaign asks from charities. It’s only concerned with an explicit or implicit ask to vote for or against candidates or parties.
  • The guidance now defines ‘implicitly promoting parties or candidates’ more tightly. In particular, it now refers to ‘setting out or comparing the merits of the positions of political parties or candidates on a policy’ – not just the positions.

The new guidance is much clearer on what happens if a party adopts a policy you’ve already been campaigning on. Carrying on with what you were already doing or planning to do is unlikely to become regulated activity just because a party’s adopted your policy.

There is reassurance about retrospective regulated period and unexpected elections

Unexpected elections are very topical at the moment, and of course the sector has experience of this from 2017. The new guidance covers this issue and should go a long way to address the concerns charities had in 2017. It makes clear that in the Electoral Commission’s view, campaigners usually can’t reasonably be regarded as intending to influence an election they didn’t know about. This has always been NCVO’s view, and the Electoral Commission took a similar position in 2017 – but it’s much better, and clearer, to have it in the guidance itself.

Campaigning which meets the purpose test for other elections and falls within a regulated period is still regulated activity. Sometimes your language might make it clear you’re aiming at an election even if you don’t know when it is, but your normal campaigning activity isn’t going to be caught out by an unexpected election.

A big step forward

We’re really pleased to see this guidance and we hope it will make charities more confident about campaigning. There are still issues in the legislation that are problematic, such as the joint campaigning rules, and need proper reform. But in the meantime, this guidance makes it clear that the law is a lot less restrictive than many fear. We’d encourage our members, and all charities, to make the most of it.

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Observing snap elections in Ukraine

Mark Pascoe, Electoral Guidance Manager at the Commission, recently went to Ukraine to observe the early parliamentary election. He visited in a personal capacity and has written about his experiences while there.

After visiting North Macedonia last year, I have recently returned from another mission – this time to Ukraine to observe the early parliamentary election on 21 July. I was again with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a Short Term Observer (STO).

In April this year Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine on an anti-corruption ticket, beating the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a second run off with over 73% of the vote. Previous elections in Ukraine have always seen a clear east-west split in the vote, but Zelensky was the clear victor in all but one of the country’s administrative regions in what was a strong vote for change.

Zelensky is new to politics but had previously created and starred in a popular TV show in which he plays a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes…the president of Ukraine.

Having taken up the position but with no support in parliament, Zelensky called for early parliamentary elections with a view to getting his political party ‘Servant of the People’, which incidentally is named after the TV show, some seats and himself some support.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, comprises 450 seats. Half are elected through national party lists using proportional representation, with a 5% threshold required for a party to be allocated seats. The other half are elected to represent single-member constituencies using first-past-the-post. Again, owing to the war in the east of the country, the constituency elections do not take place in 26 of these constituencies, with the seats remaining vacant.

After a day and a half of briefings in Kyiv on the political environment, the legal framework, electoral administration, the media and the campaign, I was deployed to Vinnytsia in the west(ish) of the country. After a local briefing, my STO partner and I were sent on to Yampil, a small town on the banks of the Dniester with a view across to neighbouring Moldova.

Elections in the country are managed by the Central Election Commission (CEC), which for these elections appointed 199 District Election Commissions. 26 DECs were not able to be formed due to the ongoing war in the east of the country, where elections were not held. The DECs oversee the final administrative layer, the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) typically made up of between 13 and 15 people, which are appointed to administer each polling station of which there were well over 30,000 across the country.

Polling opened at 8am on Sunday but as my partner and I had been designated the night shift, we made a gentle start to the day and reached our first polling station an hour or so later.

We had two ballot papers to look out for and with over twenty parties competing nationally, they were similar in length to some of the recent European parliamentary ballot papers we saw here in May.

Throughout the day we visited half a dozen different polling stations across our designated region. It being rural in nature, we visited small villages and like in the UK, polling stations were in schools or village halls. Huge posters detailing the candidates (for the constituency) and the party lists dominated the entrances and we noticed that many electors took their time to read up on them prior to voting.

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Voting

People must show identification before receiving a ballot paper, with most electors presenting their ‘national passport’ – a document given free to all citizens that contains details on residence, marriage, any children, amongst other things.

Upon receiving their ballot paper(s) voters were required to sign the electoral register themselves as well as signing the counterfoil of the ballot paper, which was retained by the polling station staff. Having cast their vote, the ballots were then placed in clear plastic ballot boxes.

On absent voting, those unable to make it to a polling station were able to apply to vote from their home. The polling station staff held a separate list of these voters and visited them in turn during the day of the election, taking a mini ballot box and all other necessary equipment with them.

For those temporarily away from home in other parts of the country, the option existed to apply to vote in a different polling station on the day itself (these voters could not vote in the constituency election and could vote only in the national party list poll). Ukrainian citizens overseas were able to cast their ballots at diplomatic buildings in a whole host of countries, from Iran to Malaysia, from Cuba to Kazakhstan.DSC_2398

Close of polls

Polls closed at 8pm with counting then carried out within the polling station. This was an incredibly transparent but laborious process. A single member of the PEC was responsible for counting every ballot paper, having first held them up for the view of everyone present. At our polling station just over 200 people had voted and this process took over four hours from start to finish.

After midnight we travelled to the DEC to observe the verification of results for the district, each PEC brought their results and ballot papers in one-by-one where everything was checked, formalised and, once approved, results were transmitted electronically to the Central Election Commission. This too, was a lengthy process as everything was checked one PEC at a time and all results read aloud.

By the time we came to leave at 6am, our shift over, they had processed 22 of 192 polling stations. As we left we walked past hundreds of polling station staff milling around or sleeping in their cars as they waited for their turn.

After some sleep and a late breakfast we returned to the DEC to observe for a while longer, it seemed that some of the members had not moved from their chairs in over 12 hours. By the time we again left the building at 4pm, almost 24 hours on from the close of polls, they had processed around half of the results.

The final result was announced by the Central Election Commission on 26 July.

None of the Servant of the People’s new MPs has been in parliament before. How this will pan out for Ukraine will be interesting to observe, but despite a lower-than-usual turnout there was a noticeable sense of optimism amongst the people I met and people are expecting positive change.

In terms of the administration of the election, the OSCE’s preliminary findings were broadly positive, noting: “the electoral administration was competent and effective despite short time available to prepare the elections, which were seen as an opportunity to consolidate reforms and changes in politics that Ukrainian voters are hoping for”.

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Looking back at the European Parliamentary elections

The European parliament election that was never going to happen is now behind us, and we await the results which will emerge from Sunday evening once polls have closed across all member states. It is an anomaly for our politics to have to wait that long for the results, but it is not the only thing that is unusual about this election. They are delivered on a different, regional structure only used in Great Britain for this purpose; the voting and counting system used reflects this; and there are different processes that have to be completed to ensure people are properly registered and able to vote.

These are some of the reasons why we and the wider electoral community raised concerns with the government, with rising urgency in the first months of this year. While a general election follows a well-trodden path and can be delivered relatively comfortably – albeit not without considerable effort – within eight weeks, the same is not true of the European parliament elections. The ongoing delays to confirming the poll continued to escalate the risks.

We had contingency plans in place for these elections, which we scaled up as the date grew closer, including holding funding in reserve. We did this in the face of substantial criticism from some quarters of the public, media and politics, including government ministers. We continued to apply pressure and finally, on 1 April, the government confirmed that public funds could be used by returning officers to make preparations. We said at the time that this was an unprecedented level of uncertainty in a mature democracy. Only on 7 May – the date by which voters had to be registered to vote at the poll – did the government confirm that it would go ahead.

The pressure at a local level, as a result, has been substantial, further intensified by the short gap between this poll and local elections on 2 May, which would normally have been moved to take place on the same date. Booking polling stations, finding staff to run them, arranging the printing of millions of pieces of paper, issuing postal vote papers and other registration information in time.

Given this, it is an immense credit to the returning officers and other electoral staff across the country that they achieved what they did in the circumstances: a largely well-run election in the face of substantial challenges. Clearly, however, there were issues as risks materialised, most notably and regrettably the issues experienced by some citizens of other EU member states intending to vote.

There has to be a process to guard against people voting in two countries, to ensure fairness. The current process, aspects of which are specified in EU and UK law, is not new, and neither is the experience of people being found not to be correctly registered and turned away at polling stations. This doesn’t make it any less frustrating for individual voters or regrettable for those who champion our democratic system, but has been brought into tighter focus at a poll where tensions have been high.

The commission made the case for making this legal process easier for citizens following the last EU elections in 2014. However, improvements to the process are reliant on changes to electoral law. While contingency plans can be made for the delivery of an election under current legislation, no amount of preparation by us or by local officials could effect a change in these rules which requires the action of government and parliament. While it is understandable that no changes were made in the face of the government’s stern assurance that the UK would not participate in the election, it is deeply disappointing and in truth not good enough.

In the face of this, we and local administrators worked hard to manage within the current system, though it is unarguable that the very short notice from the government of the UK’s participation in these elections impacted significantly on the time available for awareness of this process among citizens, and for citizens to complete the process. Where normally, work would have begun on EU citizen processes from at least the very beginning of 2019, this activity could not start until April.

In the coming weeks and months, we will address this and other issues as part of our requirement to report on the conduct of the elections. There are clearly broader lessons to learn. We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.

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European Elections in the UK – just another poll?

Our Chair has blogged about preparations for the European Parliamentary elections on 23 May. He outlines preparations in place, and the risks associated with cancelling elections once preparations have begun. He also writes about the need for there to be respectful debate.

Like Returning Officers and political parties around the country, the Electoral Commission is now busy preparing for European Parliamentary elections on Thursday 23 May.

For those involved in running the elections the main issues are the usual practical ones, complicated in this case by the late notice, and the short gap between this poll and local elections on 2 May: can I book polling stations at such a late stage, and find staff to run them? Across the UK that means about 50,000 polling stations and two hundred thousand staff. Can local printers do the necessary in time, including sourcing the paper, to produce ballots and postal votes? That means literally millions of pieces of paper. Can I send out postal vote papers quickly enough to allow them to be returned before polling day, particularly for those overseas? How do I ensure that EU citizens in my constituency are properly able to choose where they vote?

At the Commission, we have had contingency plans in place for some time, on the basis that these elections were legally required until we actually left the EU. Our guidance for elections staff, parties and other campaigners was ready to go. We are running our usual pre-poll campaign to encourage anyone not already registered to vote to do so by the deadline of 7 May.

So far, so normal. But this is of course far from a normal situation. The government has said it does not want these elections to happen. If the Brexit withdrawal agreement is agreed by Parliament by 22 May, they say the elections could be cancelled, even at the eleventh hour.

I have no more idea than anyone else how likely this is. But in any case the election process must go full speed ahead in the meantime, to make sure everything is ready to allow people to express their right to vote.

This is an unprecedented level of uncertainty in a mature democracy. Voters can be forgiven for being confused. Even if the elections go ahead as currently planned, no-one can tell whether those elected will take their seats or, if so, for how long.

There are bound to be questions about the impact on voters, now and in future, when a significant electoral process is in such doubt, especially when its value is being openly questioned by the Government itself. This follows already serious concerns about public confidence in our current political processes that have been highlighted by the Hansard Society.

We will need to come back to these issues once the elections are behind us, one way or another. Meanwhile, it is clear that emotions surrounding these elections may run high, on both sides of the Brexit divide. There is therefore a huge responsibility on all concerned – government, parties, campaigners and media alike – to make sure that these elections are conducted in a properly democratic way. That means mutually respectful electoral debate, however robust the arguments, and a determination on all sides to avoid any kind of provocation or incitement to undemocratic methods.

We will also of course be regulating the campaigns to ensure that all concerned are playing by the financial rules, on both donations and spending. And we will be working hard to ensure, along with bodies such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, that the unprecedented opportunities to reach voters through digital means are not being abused.

Transparency is the key. Voters must be able to make up their minds freely, and in full knowledge of who is targeting them and how, without their personal data being misused.

The European elections are a difficult test for everyone at a challenging political time for our country. It is vital that our democratic institutions and traditions come through intact.

Sir John Holmes, Chairman, Electoral Commission

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Public engagement in democracy – the need to be on the electoral register

The Commission has a responsibility to promote public awareness ahead of UK elections. Each year, we undertake a voter registration campaign ahead of scheduled elections, to make sure that eligible voters are aware of the need to be registered; and also that they know there is a deadline by which they need to do this.

And our campaigns are important, as we know the general level of public awareness around registration is not universally high. Our most recent assessment – a pre-poll tracking survey in England ahead of the 2 May local elections – found that only 11% of people know that the deadline is 2-3 weeks before the poll. 28% had no idea of when the deadline was at all. This clearly underlines the need for activity to ensure unregistered electors do not miss the deadline, or believe that they have already done so.

We have a strong record of value for money and performance in these campaigns. This year’s campaign for the local elections, which ended on 12 April, saw over 570,000 people apply to register across England and Northern Ireland; that’s 36% over the campaign target. Last year our campaign for the local elections – the first time we used our ‘Got 5?’ creative approach – won the best not-for-profit campaign at the Media Awards.

We normally have significant time to plan these campaigns, with work beginning the previous autumn; this isn’t always the case, though, as with the unscheduled General Election of 2017. Our contingency planning ensures we are prepared, and on that occasion the majority of our campaign advertising space was booked within three days of the announcement of the poll. So too ahead of the European Parliament elections, and we are now launching activity ahead of these polls to raise awareness of the 7 May voter registration deadline among eligible, unregistered voters.

In planning this campaign we have taken into account the proximity to the local election activity noted above, which was taking place in 249 local authority areas in England and across Northern Ireland; we want to minimise any potential voter confusion, in relation to the registration and polling dates. We have therefore weighted the campaign to areas that have not had local elections, and have therefore not been encouraged to register (nor been made aware of the need to do so) for some time. In the case of Scotland, Wales, and voters overseas, that is two years ago.

We have prioritised the highest reaching channels to drive awareness in the shortened time period. We’ll launch this week with digital advertising, targeted to known under-registered groups (including students, recent movers and some BME communities) as well as overseas citizens, to make best use of our budget. TV advertising will then launch next week leading up the registration deadline, to maximise reach and awareness. This will all be supported by our work with partner organisations who take an interest in driving voter registration; we’re always grateful for their support and the extensive efforts they make to extend the message to their audiences.

Our spending on this public awareness activity will be at a lower level than we would normally spend for a similar national poll, it will make an important contribution to maintaining the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers. This is an ongoing and challenging task, on which we work closely with electoral registration officers across the country. We know that people are significantly more likely to register in the lead up to an election – indeed, in the days and hours before the registration deadline itself – so this provides another valuable occasion to drive registration and to ensure people are able to have their say for these or future elections.

Craig Westwood, Director of Communications and Research

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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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