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

 

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

By Bob Posner, chief executive of the Electoral Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive

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Girlguiding launch their new programme, including a voting badge

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

A guest blog by Emily, 17, Girlguiding Ranger

Emily, Girlguiding Ranger, at Downing Street

Emily, Girlguiding Ranger, at Downing Street

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

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

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#OurDay – The role of local authority elections teams, part 2

To celebrate #OurDay,  we’re sharing first-hand accounts from local authority elections teams about what their jobs are like. In these short videos, Louis Humphreys, Lynne Williams and Deborah Wright from South Holland District Council in Lincolnshire share details about their roles.

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#OurDay – The role of local authority elections teams, part 1

To celebrate #OurDay today, we’re taking a closer look at the work of elections teams at local authorities. Tanya Rowlandson, Electoral Services Officer for Broadland District Council in Norfolk since 2008, has shared some details of what her job involves.

Tanya Rowlandson - Broadland DC image

Tanya Rowlandson, Electoral Services Officer at Broadland District Council

I work in a small team so my job can be quite varied; I enjoy the challenges of the election period when things can get a bit manic. But we have a great team spirit and camaraderie that gets us through it all.

Day to day I’m dealing with the applications received via the IERDS, using council tax records to review registration entitlement, assisting with the annual household canvass and then, of course, helping with the preparations for all elections (staffing, polling stations, nomination papers and the count).

We don’t have a call centre, so I will deal with queries from the members of the public, other council officers, members and town/parish clerks.

At the moment, we’re busy preparing to publish a new electoral register by the 1 December deadline.  We’ve had over a 90% response rate for this year’s canvass but some people still don’t register until a general election is announced or they want to improve their credit rating.

Our Parliamentary constituencies cross boundaries with Norwich City Council and North Norfolk District Council. We’ve previously been the lead authority for both constituencies, for the June 2017 General Election, our combined electorate was 144,258 and we issued 27,366 postal votes in-house.

During an election, managing elector expectations can be challenging.  Some people think they can vote online and many don’t realise how much work is involved in arranging postal votes.  It can be frustrating when someone phones and admit they’ve ripped up the ballot paper because they thought it was for a local election, mislaid it or their dog has eaten it and want a replacement.  We’ve had to advise an overseas elector to retrieve the pieces from their bin and tape it together and return it immediately in order to make the polling day deadline!

We work flat out on polling day.  We’re usually in the office at 6:15 am – ready to deal with any queries from our Presiding Officers and from voters who are trying to find their polling station or want to know the reason why they’re not registered to vote.

We’re also dealing with all the postal votes handed in at the stations; or at the count. Once they’ve all been scanned/processed- it’s a quick drive to our count venue to get stuck in with counting the votes which can go on until 5-6am the next day.

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Celebrating Black history month

By Mark Nyack, Senior Communications Officer (Public Information)

Mark BME blog

Often the immeasurable contributions made by black and ethnic minority people to academia, research, art, music, politics and technology are overlooked. Black history is part of all our histories but it has sometimes been denied a place in our cultural awareness. 

Black history month aims to address this. It informs and educates all of us by highlighting and celebrating the achievements and contributions of the black community over the years. As Black history month nears to an end it’s a great opportunity to celebrate diversity more broadly and the steps forward that society has made. 

At the Electoral Commission we recognise the contributions made by all sections of our society and the importance of ensuring everyone has their say. We want to ensure our voter registration message reaches everyone, particularly under-registered groups. This is particularly important at this time of year as every local authority across the UK undertakes the annual canvass, ensuring that their electoral registers are accurate and up to date.

The 2017 British Election Study indicates that ethnic minorities are generally less likely to vote than white people. It estimated turnout among BAME voters to be around 59%, 11 percentage points lower than the turnout among white voters 70%.

The first step to having your say at an election or referendum is to ensure your name is on the electoral register.

Our research indicates that black and minority ethnic people are a significantly under registered groups in the UK. Our report looking at the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register published in 2016 shows that 25% of black people, 20% of Asian people and 23% of people with mixed ethnicity are not on the electoral roll in the UK.

bme voters

For the May 2018 elections the Commission partnered with BME organisations to help spread the registration message by sharing resources that promoted voter registration.

This targeted approach across various under registered groups ensured that all sections of the community had exposure to our public awareness activities.

Politics affects every part of our lives. If you’re not registered to vote you don’t have a voice. It’s quick and easy to register to vote online, simply visit www.gov.uk/registertovote

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