Today I mark one year at the Electoral Commission. As I look back on what has been a busy 12months, three reflections emerge…
1/ Staying focused on the voter – It is hard to think of a more jam-packed UK electoral calendar than 2016. More than 54 million votes have been cast across polls in total during 2016. Elections have taken place in all corners of the UK – from national, London-wide and local polls, to Police and Crime Commissioner elections and who could forget the small matter of the EU referendum?
My first year has certainly brought home the sheer scale of operation required to run elections and referendums, not to mention the challenge of planning for a number of polls in parallel. By and large, all the polls have run smoothly. The results have been accepted and the experience for voting continues to be a positive one for the large majority of voters. But that doesn’t just happen by chance. Making sure it all goes to plan takes hard work, dedication and attention to detail on the part of hundreds of electoral administrators around the country. Without them we simply couldn’t cast our vote. An obvious point you might think but one we shouldn’t take for granted.
Voter confidence in the electoral process is an important part of our primary focus at the Commission and something we work with our partners to deliver. This is where our work on fraud, our campaigns about the importance of registering to vote and reports on the effectiveness of recent elections and the referendum have all played an important part. I’m keen that we continue to work with partners, including charities, community organisations and others, to reach voters in new and innovative ways. This external work is key to making sure voters have the information they need and are confident in casting their vote.
2/ Operating in a changing landscape – As I look back on the external environment over the last 12 months, I am struck by the challenges faced by political parties and campaigners. During my first few weeks I prioritised getting out and about to meet with political parties across the UK. It was clear that the terms of engagement are changing significantly and that the way parties communicate is evolving all the time, as is the way voters consume their information. This is something we will need to remain alive to. For example, how will the context of modern campaigning continue to be reflected in our approach as a regulator in the years to come? Indeed that’s one of the emerging themes from our Strategic Review, where we’ve been asking for your views on the Electoral Commission and our focus between now and 2020 and beyond. We’ve had a wide range of responses from across the country so thank you to all those who took the time to send in their views.
3/ Working together for modernisation – Our electoral processes are only fit for purpose if they are workable in the 21st century. Sadly our electoral law in the UK hasn’t quite moved with the times. That’s why we strongly support the Law Commissions’ electoral law reform project. We’re confident that reform will lead to a simpler and more modern law, enabling well-run elections and making it easier for candidates and voters to take part. Again, modernisation is a central thread in many of responses we’ve had as part of our Strategic Review – with many pondering how we can ensure our democratic processes remain fit for purpose and responsive to the needs of voters?
It’s clear that the electoral family (us included) has a real opportunity to work collaboratively and grasp the prospect of updating our electoral building blocks, for the benefit of voting generations to come. We need to be prepared for big challenges ahead and understand which of these building blocks will need to change. For example, are voters in 2025 still going to expect to only be able to vote in person, in a fixed place, on a fixed day, with a stubby pencil? If not, what is the alternative and what will we need to deliver this?