Future proofing Scottish elections – The Scottish Government consultation on electoral reform

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.

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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.

scottish pull quoteThere 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.

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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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Voting – Go and give it a go!

Michelle, a campaigner for Mencap who has a learning disability, talks about her experience of voting and top tips for getting involved in democracy as the Electoral Commission and Mencap launch an easy read guide to the 2018 local elections.

I have a learning disability and like many people I can get very angry with politicians and some of the decisions they make! But I don’t agree with people who think they can’t change this. People with learning disability have the same right to vote as everyone else so you can make change happen!

Michelle landscape

Even though politicians make decisions on lots of important things like how much money is given out in benefits, what housing there is for disabled people and how much is spent on the NHS, we are their boss and they are meant to speak for us!

By voting in local elections you can have your say in which politicians make these important decisions! You can help keep someone who you think is doing a good job or vote to change them. You don’t need to be an expert to vote and take part in our democracy!

To get you started here are my top tips to get into voting;

  1. Talk to your parents, friends and teachers about voting.
  2. Research your local candidates, look at their website and Social Media.
  3. Can visit Parliament (it’s free!) and watch politicians on TV.
  4. Read Mencap and the Electoral Commission’s Easy Read Guide to Voting and the easy read party Manifestos during elections (a book which says what political parties would do if they are elected).
  5. Get an appointment with your MP or local councillors at their surgery and go talk to them.
  6. Go to hustings events at elections to learn about the people who want you to vote for them.

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Voting gave me more than a say in who runs the country or my local council, it also gave me confidence. I feel more confident in how I deal with everyday tasks and have even got my MP to do more work with local charities!

I would encourage everyone to get involved with voting. There is no right or wrong answer but it can make a big difference to your life and everyone else’s.

Go and give it a go!

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Our 2018 voter registration campaign

Have you Got 5 while your socks dry? Introducing our new voter registration campaign which asks you to use your wasted time to register to vote ahead of the 2018 local elections. Find out more…

By Alex Chafey, Senior Communications Officer (Campaigns), Electoral Commission

It’s time for our big push to get people registered in time for the local elections on 3 May, and we’ve got a brand new approach to the campaign which we’re excited to share with you for the first time.

It’s been a busy few years in the world of electoral registration with record-breaking registration rates ahead of the EU referendum and 2017 general election.  But while progress has been made, particularly with people moving house and becoming old enough to vote, the work never stops to make sure anyone eligible is able to have their say.

Got 5 painting toenails

Got 5?

To highlight how easy it is to register to vote, and to help convince all those people who have been putting it off, our campaign asks people to think of times they’ve ‘got 5’ and consider using that time to register to vote.

So whether you’re running your bubble bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or letting your newly-painted toenails dry you can register to vote while you wait. What could be easier?

Highly targeted

Since local elections are only taking place in a select number of areas in England this year, we need to be sure that our campaign is only focused in those places. Gone are TV and radio, which can’t be precisely targeted so would be too wasteful.

Instead we’re using a combination of billboards, video on demand, digital audio (like Spotify), Facebook, Instagram and digital banner ads. And, in Electoral Commission firsts, we’re using Snapchat and distributing nearly one million voter registration beer mats to student bars.

Beer mat

Informed registration

To help minimise the number of applications from people who are already registered to vote we’re including information to make it clear when you need to register: when you change address or if you’ve never been registered before.

We are hoping this will go some way to minimising the unnecessary burden of duplicate applications on electoral administrators.

Get involved

To support our activity we’ve produced registration and information resources which you can download from our resources hub.

We’re really looking forward to seeing how our new campaign does and can’t wait for everyone to see it. So if you’re in a local election area keep your eyes peeled from now until 17 April. And if you’ve #Got5 and you’re not already registered, go to gov.uk/register-to-vote now.

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A new law breaks down another barrier to voting

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission

A change to the law making anonymous registration easier will mean vulnerable people are able to register to vote without compromising their safety, ending a situation which has seen too many people disenfranchised in the past. This new legislation, will help hundreds of people, not least those at risk of domestic violence register to vote anonymously more easily. Being a survivor of abuse should never deprive a person of the right to have their say at elections.

This change to the law also helps others whose personal safety could be compromised by having their personal details on a publicly available electoral register. Victims of harassment and stalking, or those who have jobs that put them at risk from other people, like members of the police and the security services, will benefit too.

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Being able to register to vote anonymously was first introduced in Great Britain twelve years ago, through the Electoral Administration Act, and enabled someone to register to vote without having their name or address made public. However, this process was fraught with difficulties not least because the only way to register anonymously was by providing a specific court order or injunction and an attestation. The type of person who could provide this attestation confirming an individual’s situation merited them being able to register anonymously was limited and set at a really high level, for example a police superintendent.

We believe that it should be straightforward for people to participate in our elections; today’s new law is a positive step forward for this. From now on what voters can provide as documentary evidence includes additional court orders and extends the list of who can provide attestations so that midwives, nurses, police officers and refuge managers are able to support applications. These are professionals voters come across in their day to day lives and who they are able to form trusting relationships with, making them well placed to provide the attestations.

These professionals, who will now play a vital role in ensuring vulnerable people are able to register to vote, must be supported to understand the changes, that’s why we’ve teamed up with organisations to produce brand new guidance on this new legislation.

Produced with Women’s Aid, and organisations including the Royal College of Midwifes, the guidance will support refuge managers, midwives and local authority electoral services departments to enable their service users to have their say at elections with confidence.

The government has today shown their commitment to removing barriers that prevent voters from exercising their democratic rights. And in the year we mark 100 years since the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave some women the right to vote for the first time, it is right that we continue to identify and remove barriers to voting which still remain in 2018.

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Celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage

Ahead of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, passed on 6 February 1918, giving some women the right to vote in the UK for the first time, we’ve asked women at the Commission to share their thoughts on the anniversary.

Bridget Prentice, Commissioner


It was 1969 and I was studying Higher History at my all-girls school in the East End of Glasgow. We talked of nothing else (causes of the First World War, social reform of the 19th century etc all went out the window) as we debated the news that 18 year olds were to get the vote the following year.

What would it be like?  How did you do it? What actually happens inside a polling station? How will they know I’m entitled to a vote? All these questions and more passed back and fro in lessons and the playground. We were very excited. There was some debate about whether we were ‘mature’ enough to vote but that was quickly dismissed. Of course we were – we were the children of the sixties, Peace and Love, the generation that would change the world.

So when the general election was called in June 1970, there was no question but that every single one of us who was 18 voted. But not me.

No, I didn’t turn 18 until the very end of December that year so I was left behind. At least that’s how I felt. I was so disappointed. I had even worked in the election campaign, delivering leaflets but couldn’t vote. The frustration was palpable. In fact, I wasn’t able to vote until I was 21 as the next election was in 1974! I’d finished university before I was able to walk into a Polling Station and put a cross against the candidate of my choice. But how much did I enjoy doing that? The feeling that I was part of a greater community of people deciding who should run our country was fizzing inside me – I could barely contain my excitement. And aura of the Polling Station with being handed a ballot paper that was carefully stamped, walking to a rickety booth and picking up that stubby pencil, tied to the side of the rickety booth and checking twice, maybe three times, that I’d put the cross where I wanted it to be, lives with me still.

So the celebration of women’s suffrage is so important – to remind us of the power of democracy, that it was fought for, that there are nations still where people don’t have that power. There are two images that conjure up the importance of our vote – South Africa, when Black people queued for hours in searing heat to vote for the first time and in Iraq when women came out of the Polling Station with their fingers stained purple and held high to show that they too had a share in the decision making of their country. Democracy is a fragile thing. We need to nurture it. Our vote is a symbol of that nurturing.

Elan Closs Stephens, Commissioner for Wales


In 1918, over 8m women gained the right to vote – those over 30 or who met property qualifications. In another ten years, all women had the franchise. As I celebrate this notable year in the women’s movement, I pause to think of the courage it took to win those rights.  For the suffragettes, the suffering was real and sometimes horrific.  Emily Davison, later to die under the King’s horse at The Derby, barricaded herself in her cell and was hosed. Warders had to revive her with hot water bottles before she could be force-fed. Force-feeding was a regular answer to hunger strikes; given the medical supplies and tubing of the time, it must have been brutally painful.  Other suffragists believed in discussion, argument, petitions. For them too, it took huge courage to raise a voice, to step out of the demure respectability required of a wife and mother, to demand rights. I want to honour Millicent Fawcett who led the  NUWSS; her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson- the first qualified woman physician who nevertheless had to gain her degree from the Sorbonne;  Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia; Emily Davison; Emily Davies who became the founder  of Girton and fought for Higher Education, and in Wales business woman Lady Rhondda who was refused a seat in the House of Lords when her father died.  And of course the countless other names, men and women, who fought for change.  It is almost impossible for me to recreate the social milieu, the restrictions of a bygone age and the courage it took to fight convention and gain a vital tool of equality. I owe them all more than I can fully understand.

Ailsa Irvine, Director of Electoral Administration


I voted for the first time at the inaugural Scottish Parliament elections which were held on the same day as the local council elections in May 1999. While I wasn’t really into politics back then, there was never any question in my mind as to whether or not to vote – for me, voting is a fundamental right that many women before me didn’t have and I have always believed it is important to exercise that right. I recall voting by post from university in my home constituency. The postal voting rules were different then and you needed to get someone to witness your signature on your security statement – I remember feeling important when I asked a friend to do this and it somehow seemed to me to underline the significance of it all. I passionately believe that every woman who is eligible to vote should be able to exercise that right freely and easily. I hope that the centenary will lead to women across the UK making sure they are registered to vote so they can make their voice heard.

Ann Watt, Head of Northern Ireland

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My young son has a surprising knowledge about elections for a seven year old, but that’s because he spends a lot of time with me! But one thing I recently realised is that I have never told him that 100 years ago his mum, grannies and aunties wouldn’t have been allowed to vote. I think the reason I have never mentioned this is that it is so completely unbelievable now that it doesn’t seem relevant. He sees women standing for election on posters, leaflets and on the TV. There are women in senior roles in politics and government right across the UK. The thought of women not even being able to vote sounds like another world.

I first voted in 1992 during my last year at school in Belfast. This was the UK general election where the opinion polls suggested a huge Parliament with Labour as the largest party, but the Conservatives ended up winning with a small majority. I remember voting early in the morning, and walking into the polling station just as a very prominent local politician walked out, which made it all feel very real. We had endless heated debates at school about local and national politics. My sister and I stayed up all night watching the results, and from the exit polls onwards it was clear that the outcome wasn’t going to turn out as expected. That was the first of many long elections nights I have spent watching results on TV, and the first of a few surprising outcomes. Little did I know then that 25 years later I’d be spending election nights pacing around count halls…

So I’ll be talking to my son soon about this important anniversary. I look forward to hearing his reaction when he hears that women were not allowed to vote. I hope he is shocked, since it’s so hard to believe now. It’s right that he is shocked. But it’s also right that we remember and value the privilege we all have, both female and male, in being entitled to vote freely in fair elections.

Get involved!

We’re encouraging women across the UK to celebrate using their right on 6th February by posting pictures on social media of them saying ‘I vote’ with our printable poster. Download the poster from our website here: www.yourvotematters.co.uk/get-involved/centenary-of-womens-suffrage 

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Helping to stop intimidation of Parliamentary candidates

By Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy

On Wednesday the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its final report following a review of intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates at the general election in June 2017.

Following this year’s general election, many candidates and MPs also raised concerns with the Electoral Commission about intimidation they had experienced during the campaign. Our survey of general election candidates found this issue was raised unprompted by 4% of respondents.

We made several suggestions to the CSPL during their review about changes to electoral law which could play a part in helping to address these concerns. We welcome their report and we want the UK Government to give their proposals serious consideration at the earliest opportunity.

More broadly, the CSPL report recognised concerns expressed across the electoral community that electoral law is out of date in some key areas and needs to be updated and improved. This includes updating election offences and recognising the increasing role of digital and online campaign activities during elections. Our recent report on the administration of 2017 general election highlighted risks to well-run elections in future and urged the UK’s government to make further progress with implementing the Law Commissions’ important electoral law reform proposals.

Transparency of online campaigning

The Electoral Commission has long argued that electoral law needs to be updated so that the transparency and accountability requirements for printed election material are extended to online material.

These rules ensure that campaigners are accountable for spending on regulated campaign material, but they also allow voters to identify who is responsible for the material and who is trying to influence them. Currently the requirement only extends to printed election material and, while this remains important, the increasing use of online and digital activities by campaigners means that it is more important than ever that the rules should be extended to cover online material.


We first highlighted this recommendation in 2003, and we welcome the CSPL reiterating this proposal, which has become even more relevant in recent years.

Although this would be an significant improvement, we know that it’s unlikely to be sufficient on its own to address the recent concerns about online campaigns. As a proactive regulator, we are already talking to the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to see what more can be done to improve the transparency of political advertising on their platforms. We also want to see if there are specific steps that they could take to support transparency and compliance with the UK’s political finance rules, including what they can do to help us ensure our regulatory and enforcement work relating to digital and online campaign activity is as effective as possible.

This is a fast-moving area and we know that the UK’s parliaments will also continue to look at it closely, to see how existing legislation could be amended and extended to keep our elections, candidates, and electorate safe.

Candidates’ home addresses

Through our own surveys with local council election candidates we have found that people were concerned that their home address would be printed on ballot papers. One person told us that they had previously needed to involve the police having been targeted as a result of their address being made public; another feared for their safety when a member of the public arrived at their home during the night.

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There was support from local election candidates that we heard from this year for being able to choose to leave their full address off the ballot paper in future. This is already an option for candidates at elections to the UK Parliament and also for Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

It is important to find the right balance between transparency for voters about who candidates are when they are choosing how to vote and ensuring the safety of those putting themselves forward for election.

We have previously recommended that the Scottish Government should review the rules on the publication of candidates’ home addresses at local elections to find a balance between safety and transparency. Similarly, our Welsh local government report notes that the Welsh Government has suggested that it should no longer be necessary to publish local election candidates’ home addresses on ballot papers. We welcome the CSPL recommendation that the UK Government should also look at this issue for local government elections in England.

The UK’s strong tradition of free elections is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and people should be able to put themselves forward for election and campaign without fear of abuse or intimidation.


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Are the UK’s elections fit for purpose? We must avoid complacency to stop a perfect storm from forming

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

John IfG 4.pngAnd 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.

Useful links:

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