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.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Elections, Electoral Commission, Electoral Fraud, Electoral Law, Police, UKPGE 2015 | Leave a comment

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

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Register to Vote, voters, voting | Leave a comment

#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.

Posted in #yourvotematters, Campaigns, Elections, Electoral Commission, voters, voting | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

#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.

Posted in #yourvotematters, Campaigns, Elections, Uncategorized, voters, voting | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The limits of transparency in Northern Ireland

By Bob Posner, Director of Political Finance and Regulation and Legal Counsel

Transparency is a guiding principle for us at the Electoral Commission. We believe voters should be able to see and understand how political parties and campaigners are funded; how they spend their money; and who they target with campaign materials.

The rules set out by Parliament, which we enforce, state that political parties and campaign groups must provide us with information on donations and loans, campaign spending and annual accounts. We then publish the information via our easy to use, searchable database. For us, our role is not just about publishing political finance information, it is about ensuring this information is easy to access and open to scrutiny. We believe this increases public trust and confidence in our democratic process.

Until recently, these rules did not extend fully to Northern Ireland. While political parties in Northern Ireland were required to provide us with the same financial information, we were not permitted to publish or share anything about donations and loans to these parties.

A major milestone in addressing the lack of transparency in Northern Ireland political finance came last year, when legislation was introduced allowing us to publish details of donations and loans to Northern Ireland parties, received from July 2017 onwards. While this is an encouraging start, it is vital we don’t stop there.

Prior to this change in legislation, we dealt with donation and loan information from Northern Ireland differently, for publication purposes, but it was still subject to rigorous compliance checks by us. This means checking donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to make sure they come from a permissible source. Failing to return an impermissible donation within 30 days can be an electoral offence and where we find evidence that this has happened we take action in line with our Enforcement Policy. If that means an investigation, we then publish its outcome even if we cannot publish details of the donation itself.

However the Commission continues to be prevented from disclosing any information concerning donations to political parties in Northern Ireland made before 1 July 2017. To do so would be an offence with serious penalties for the Commission and our staff.  This makes it extremely difficult for us to discuss and share information about how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded.

A lack of transparency is not good for our democracy and prevents the public from having important information on how their political parties are funded. That is why we welcomed the change in the law last year but also why we continue to call on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to introduce further legislation to enable us to publish the information we hold from January 2014.

This was the government’s original intention when the law was changed in 2014. At that time we advised political parties to make their donors aware that all donations made from January 2014 could be made public in the future. Extending the transparency rules to 2014 would open up a period of intense electoral activity to scrutiny, taking in two UK parliamentary general elections, two Northern Ireland Assembly elections, EU and local government elections and the EU referendum. Transparency for these significant electoral events would do a great deal for voter trust and confidence in the democratic process.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment