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.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

PA-20945280

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

eo graphic with quote - 08.01.18

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment