By Andy O’Neill, Head of Electoral Commission, Scotland
Over the last four years there have been five sets of Scotland-wide elections and two significant referendums, as well as countless by-elections. Now, with no scheduled polls in Scotland until 2021, we have a great opportunity to take stock and identify the challenges and opportunities in ensuring that our electoral structures remain fit for purpose in the 21st Century. This is why the Scottish Government’s consultation on electoral reform is so timely.
The consultation asks a number of important questions about how we deliver our elections so that they are as accessible as possible for voters, provide a level playing field for candidates and, above all, continue to command public confidence in the results. You can read our full response here and we’ve highlighted some areas of particular interest below.
Electronic or online voting
While the world around us has undergone a remarkable digital transformation in recent years the process of voting remains dependent on physical ballot papers marked manually by a pen or pencil. But our research has shown that around 50% of the UK population already support the availability of online voting with young people unsurprisingly being the biggest advocates. Electronic or online voting has the potential to improve accessibility and convenience for voters so it is right for the Scottish Government to explore its possibilities.
But any consideration of the potential benefits of electronic or online voting must also be weighed against any potential risks. Our research with the public tells us that our current electoral systems inspire widespread voter confidence and any proposals to widen the range of voting methods available will need to ensure that we do not risk damaging that trust. We have previously evaluated a number of electronic voting pilot schemes at council elections in England, which highlighted some significant issues around security and confidence. While technology has moved on since those pilots finished in 2007, the challenges of e-voting still remain valid and need to be considered alongside newer risks such as the threat of cyber-attacks.
There are other options set out in the consultation which may be easier to implement now and carry less risk. Voting at any polling place or voting on more than one day have the potential to improve accessibility and convenience for voters. Many countries already allow their citizens to vote in person during a designated period prior to polling day and we evaluated a number of advance (or early) voting pilot schemes at local elections in England between 2002 and 2007. Our evaluation of these pilots concluded that advance voting has the potential to enhance the accessibility and convenience of the electoral process, at least as far as voters’ perceptions are concerned, although the impact on turnout was very limited.
Alongside developments in electronic voting the Scottish Government will also need to consider the rise in digital and online campaigning. In doing so they should assess whether the current rules for campaigners at elections are sufficient for the digital age and ensure transparency around campaign spending so that voters can have confidence in the political finance rules.
Underpinning electoral reform
While there is a clear need for our electoral systems to keep pace with voters’ expectations, we can only build new initiatives effectively when we are sure our foundations are firm – foundations such as electoral registration, electoral law and skilled election staff.
We were clear in our report on Electoral registration at the June 2017 UK general election that there is a strong case for significant reform of the electoral register and the registration process and this would have the advantage of underpinning other future reforms. For example, more consolidated or centralised electoral databases would help pave the way for people to vote at any polling place.
We have also been clear for some time that current electoral law is unfit for purpose as it is complex, fragmented and unwieldy. Any future elections bill which may fall out of the consultation provides an opportunity to consolidate and simplify election law in line with the recommendations made by the Law Commission’s of Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales.
Finally, with councils under increasing strain as a result of spending cuts and experienced electoral administrators retiring and not being replaced, the role of the Electoral Management Board (EMB) for Scotland becomes increasingly more vital as it offers leadership, support and challenge to those tasked with running elections across Scotland. It is no surprise then that the Commission strongly supports the Scottish Government’s proposal to formally extend the remit of the EMB to cover Scottish Parliament elections.
There is much in the Scottish Government’s consultation to merit careful consideration and we would encourage anyone with an interest in our democracy to engage in the consultation by the deadline of 29 March.
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