On Wednesday night, our Chair, Sir John Holmes, gave a speech to the Institute for Government on the state of the British electoral system. Here we sit down with him to ask about the key issues he thinks face our country’s democratic system.
“we should be open in general to change and modernisation of our systems, and keep up with what is happening elsewhere in the world”
What do you think are some of the key strengths of the British electoral system?
Our electoral system has served us well over the years. It has major strengths and our surveys, such as those undertaken for ‘Voting in 2017’, show high levels of public satisfaction about registering to vote and elections themselves.
We can see the advantages of a strong democratic tradition and civil society when we look at other countries around the world where results can be highly contested and the idea of democratic alternance is far from embedded in the culture.
What vulnerabilities do you see present in the British electoral system?
Our own observation is that our electoral system, which is highly dependent on trust at all levels, is beginning to strain at the seams. This is particularly the case in the areas of electoral law and resourcing. There are also obvious concerns about the evolution of digital campaigning, and the need to make sure that our system is as free from fraud as we can make it. The message is that we cannot be complacent about our system and our processes, and need to go on adapting and modernising them to keep them safe and credible.
What issues are there with resources?
Like all of the public sector, local authorities face increasing resource pressures. Running elections is an intensive business, and elections at short notice, like the last general election, make that strain worse.; It isn’t just about money – experienced electoral administrators are retiring and not being replaced and staff needed for basic functions like counting are increasingly hard to find and recruit.
Meanwhile the demands on all those associated with elections are growing. New elections have been put in place – most recently the Combined Authority Mayorals – and different elections have different rules, adding layers of complexity.
Meanwhile processes accompanying valuable reforms to the registration process such as Individual Electoral Registration and the ability to register online in Great Britain have led to increased workloads for Registration Officers. As an example, of the almost 2.5 million online applications made in the run-up to the 2017 election, some 40% were by people already on the register.
The Association of Electoral Administrators issued a report following June’s general election, making clear that, without some serious changes, they feared that the system might start to fail. This must not be ignored.
You mentioned that the evolution of digital campaigning poses some issues – what are these?
The way people campaign is changing. Parties and campaigners are increasingly using digital campaigning methods, and targeting particular groups of voters with specific messages – a much cheaper alternative to the traditional leafletting or door-knocking. There is nothing wrong with this, and parties and campaigners still have to report to us on what they spend and where. But it does create new challenges about following and understanding what is happening.
From “fake news” to allegations of outside interference – there are worries about what social media might do to our democracy over time. Our financial regulatory role is limited to UK-based activity, but we are alert to the wider risks, and follow the evidence, and money, where we have reasons for suspicion.
Our key focus is to make sure that there is maximum transparency and accountability around everything that is being done. Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence them, and who is spending money to do so.
What is the Electoral Commission recommending for change?
One vital area of concern is electoral legislation, which has become over complex and inconsistent over the years. A new electoral law following the recommendations of the Law Commissions would help everyone. Beyond that, we already have a menu of proposals for change which we hope government and Parliament will adopt soon.
More consolidated or centralised electoral databases and an online look-up facility for those wanting to apply online and unsure whether they are already registered would help decrease the burden on Electoral Registration Officers (EROs). EROs should also be able to match data to national databases, such as those held by the DVLA or DWP, to check and update details as necessary.
We’ve also suggested moving to a system of automatic registration, so people are registered to vote when, for example, they are first issued with their National Insurance number. Sixty per cent of voters have said they support such a change.
And what about for campaigning?
We’ve recommended for some time that existing laws about the need for an imprint on written electoral material, to show where it comes from, should be fully applicable to online material too. The same should be true of the nature, origins and financing of bots and political advertising. We are talking to the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to see what more can be done. We are also conducting a number of investigations into groups or individuals that run campaigns, as part of our normal regulatory activity and enforcement policy.
How worried are you about electoral fraud?
The evidence we have suggests that the level of fraud is very low, but voters are still concerned about it. Here too there are things which can be done to reduce the risks. For example we support the introduction of a requirement for photo ID for voters at polling stations, with a free voter card for those who not have such ID, changes to some practices around postal voting, and the proposal that those who are registered in two places should have to nominate in advance where they will vote in general elections.
Does the Commission support ideas such as moving to internet voting?
I think this is not on the agenda for now, because of fears of hacking and the risks of outside interference. But we should be open in general to change and modernisation of our systems, and keep up with what is happening elsewhere in the world. The Commission can play a role in this.
You can see pictures of Wednesday’s event on the Institute for Government’s website here.