Never underestimate the power of the ballot box

2016 has been the year that democracy reasserted itself. In June, voters across the UK took part in a historic referendum, the outcome of which has profoundly changed our relationships with 27 other nations. Last month, after an 18 month campaign covered around the world, the race to become President of the United States of America was concluded. Voters across the world have been reminded that the course of history can be changed simply by turning up to a polling station, waiting patiently in a queue and marking a piece of paper.

At the end of this month, I step down as Chair of the Electoral Commission. The past eight years seem to have been filled by a constant stream of electoral events and I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make them happen, in particular the EU referendum this summer, which ran smoothly under an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. But just as politics will never stand still, so neither can the electoral system which supports it, if it is to continue to meet the needs and expectations of voters. And we need to develop it in a way which ensures both security and participation, rather than seeing these as competing outcomes.

THE EU REFERENDUM at Manchester Town Hall and Central

Transferring responsibility for electoral registration from the head of the household to each individual, coupled with the introduction of online registration, has proved to be an important and valuable step to modernise our democracy and make it more secure. We first called for this in 2003 so it has been a long time coming. But bringing it into effect now in our technologically competent world means that registration could be even easier, using a wide range of data sources to identify those who should be on the register but aren’t, thus improving participation. And we continue to make the case for the registration website, run by the UK Government, to allow people to check if they are already registered to vote. So many of us, young people especially, now conduct our ‘life admin’ online. Allowing people to check if they are registered would also save local authorities time and money by reducing unnecessary applications.

On the other hand, there has been little progress on another of the Commission’s recommendations to strengthen our trust based system. We first recommended in January 2014 that there should be a requirement for voters in Great Britain to present photo ID at a polling station. This is a system that has existed in Northern Ireland for a number of years. I’m pleased that the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion has recently come to the same conclusion and hope that the UK Government will now take up the proposal, and do so in the way we have recommended which will again safeguard participation.

Confidenpower-ballot-box_jenny-quote-croppedce in our democracy is also driven by ensuring there are the highest levels of transparency possible. In the past 8 years alone, £330 million of donations to political parties have been published by the Commission. But it is also important that no politician, political party or campaigner is perceived to be above the law. Voters need to know that if the rules are broken, action will be taken. We were only given the ability to levy our own civil sanctions in 2010. Now the Commission has called on the UK Parliament to give us stronger powers so that where there are serious breaches of the rules, more proportionate action can be taken. To reflect the fact that many parties receive and spend tens of millions of pounds at major elections and referendums, our maximum fine should be extended beyond its current £20,000 limit. Without this change, the maximum fine could all too easily become the cost of doing business.

The next few years could see a number of changes to how we vote in this country. The UK’s Law Commissions have already recommended how electoral law dating back to the 1800s can be streamlined, including changing the electoral petition process which is no longer fit for purpose. The heightened interest in the US elections also means there has been more focus on how they conduct their elections: the ability to register and cast a vote on the day of the poll and the ability to vote at a poll station up to a week before polling day are just two of the things the Electoral Commission will be looking at over the next few years. I know that my colleagues will work with governments and legislatures across the UK to come up with solutions that serve to make our democracy even better.

After the past few years at the Electoral Commission and in light of election, and referendum results over the past few years, my message is a simple one: Never underestimate the power of the ballot box. It is how your voice is heard.

Jenny Watson
Chair of the Electoral Commission

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Reflections on the US elections


Reflections on the US elections

Earlier this month, I attended a four day programme based around the US elections, at the invitation of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). It was a fascinating few days which highlighted a number of points of reflection on the similarities, and the huge differences, between our two electoral systems: 

  • The greatest difference is the level of decentralisation in the US. Decisions taken at state level range from the way registers are compiled and maintained, methods of voting, need for photo ID and polling station opening times. Managing an event across six time zones and fifty states (plus the District of Colombia) is complicated enough, and quite some accomplishment; but it did highlight the value of clarity and consistency for each poll, which we have at either UK or national level depending on the event.
  • Around the world, electoral colleagues are working hard to give voters flexibility of when and how they vote. The US is far advanced in its approach, with significant take up of early- and postal-voting. This is up from around 5% in the 1970s to around 40% now. In some areas, over half of votes were cast before polling day. At the other end of the timeline, some states can register new voters on polling day itself, where our deadline is currently 12 working days prior to a poll. This sets us a fresh example to inform our own work to create more flexibility for voters in our system. 
  • Campaign finance is in a different league in the US. It is estimated that $11billion was spent by campaigners this election, compared to just under £40 million at our 2015 General Election. Even taking into account population differences, this is staggering. Yet our system of transparency is significantly advanced. It was described to me that the US has a twin track system: candidates and parties must have transparency under the law, whereas campaigns funded by Super PACs spend large amounts of money with effective anonymity for some donors. There is resistance to change, including within the Federal Electoral Commission itself, but public concern is growing: in a recent survey of US voters, 85% said that there needed to be fundamental change in the way political campaigners are funded.
  • As in the UK, social media played a central role not only in campaigning but also in distributing essential voter information. And as in the UK, the issue of ‘polling booth selfies’ is also ongoing. Again, different rules apply in different states, ranging from 3 year prison sentences to rulings that a ban is unconstitutional. We continue to recommend that under current UK law, pictures should not be taken in the polling station, but that it is great to do this outside to show you have voted.

The UK democratic process has moved on at great pace in recent years, with the introduction of online registration and the development of our own party finance regulatory framework. International comparisons offer a moment to stand back and consider where we may still have work to do in our system, such as increasing security by introducing voter ID, and where we are leading the way, such as through our system of political finance regulation and transparency.

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive


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Take part in UK Parliament Week!

It’s UK Parliament Week. A week focused on connecting people with democracy and encouraging them to make their voices heard…


UK Parliament Week, which runs from 14-20 November, is an annual festival of events and activities that connects and engages people from across the UK with Parliament and democracy.

With over 250 events and activities, UK Parliament Week has something for everyone: whether you want to join a discussion, join a local walk, find out how you can make your voice heard or simply take part in the conversation online.

How can I get involved?

It’s easy to take part in UK Parliament Week. You can attend one of the events in our programme, organised by partners from across the UK. There are debates and other activities happening online. You can also keep up-to-date with the latest news and information by following our hashtag #UKPW16.

Why should I get involved?

UK Parliament Week is about connecting people with democracy and encouraging people to make their voices heard. It’s about highlighting the role of Parliament in people’s lives, no matter where you live in the UK.

Working in partnership with the Electoral Commission to encourage people to register to vote, vote or stand for election is an important part of this.  You can find out more on Parliament’s Get Involved pages.

In addition to voting, there are many ways that you can get involved with Parliament.  You can contact your MP or a member of the House of Lords, create or sign an e-petition about an issue that matters to you or contribute to a select committee enquiry. You can also come to Parliament to hear the issues being discussed by the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

About UK Parliament Week

This is UK Parliament Week’s sixth year. It is organised by the Houses of Parliament’s Outreach and Engagement Service. To find out more, visit the UK Parliament Week website.

Emily Unell
Outreach and Engagement Projects Manager

House of Commons

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Building confidence through voter registration

This week we are celebrating our incredible partners who help us to raise awareness of registering to vote. Here’s a look at our partnership with Shelter Scotland for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

In February, we launched our fourth joint campaign with Shelter Scotland to encourage voter registration ahead of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

Shelter Scotland provides advice, information and advocacy support to people in housing need, and campaigns for lasting political change to end the housing crisis.

Our partnership with Shelter Scotland, which began in 2011, means we can reach more people who are homeless or living in rented or temporary accommodation with our voter registration message. These groups are known to be among the most under-represented people on the electoral registers. Our latest research found that only 70 per cent of people in Scotland living in private rented accommodation were registered to vote, compared to 92 per cent of people who owned their home outright.


We took our voter registration message and a couple of giant inflatable X’s to the streets of Edinburgh to launch our latest campaign.

“We welcomed the opportunity to join forces again with the Electoral Commission. Whether it’s local, national, European elections or a referendum, Shelter Scotland believes it’s important that anyone who wants to vote should be able to do so.

Registering to vote gives people the opportunity to have their say on a range of issues which may be important to them.”

As part of this campaign Shelter Scotland sent information factsheets and posters to over 200 organisations across Scotland – including housing associations and homelessness service providers – to make sure that whatever their circumstances, people had the chance to vote and make their voice heard.

Shelter Scotland also raised awareness about the campaign through their website, social media and through traditional media channels.

“One of the most striking parts of working on these campaigns is seeing the confidence that registering and voting can instill in people. Often those who are homeless or moving from one temporary accommodation provider to another feel their views don’t matter; that they don’t have a voice and that all power has been stripped from them,” says Electoral Commission partnerships lead, Jonny Mitchell.

“Being told they can register to vote and that their vote matters just as much as anyone else’s can be incredibly empowering and it can be one of the first steps to building their confidence again.”

Read more about @ShelterScotland and #partnerweek @YourVote_UK and on Facebook!


Posted in #yourvotematters, Campaigns, Electoral Registration, Scottish Parliament, Uncategorized, voters, voting | 1 Comment

No barriers – enabling the voices of those with learning disabilities

This week we are celebrating our incredible partners who help us to raise awareness of registering to vote. Today we look back at our partnership with ENABLE Scotland to reach out to those with learning disabilities.

To ensure that both the voting process and information about how to register for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election were accessible to all, we worked in partnership with ENABLE Scotland.

ENABLE Scotland is the leading organisation of and for people who have learning disabilities. They provide a wide range of support services for over 2,000 people who have learning disabilities and their families in Scotland. Together with their 5,000 members, they campaign for an equal society for every person who has a learning disability.


On average, only 30 per cent of people with a learning disability exercise their right to vote. This is incredibly low when we consider that 70 per cent of people who have learning disabilities want to vote, but 60 per cent find the process too difficult.

“We wanted to change that with #ENABLEtheVote. And we were delighted to work with the Electoral Commission to do just that!

People with learning disabilities’ voices aren’t heard. They often face lifelong exclusion and lack of opportunity. If politicians don’t hear their voices, how can they understand the impact their decisions make on their lives?

We were delighted to work with the Electoral Commission to develop co-branded easy read voting guides. Thanks to this partnership, not only were these guides accurate and informative, they benefitted a wider audience.”

To tackle this problem, ENABLE ran a voter registration and information campaign – #ENABLEtheVote – with the aim of ensuring people with learning disabilities can use their vote.

The campaign took an innovative approach to engaging voters who have a learning disability. ENABLE Scotland wrote to leaders of political parties requesting easy read manifestos, with the aim of making the 2016 Scottish Parliament election an #EasyReadElection. As a result of their outstanding work and commitment, they have been nominated as a finalist in the 2016 Herald Society Awards for this campaign.

We teamed up with ENABLE Scotland to develop easy read factsheet resources to help people understand how to register and vote;  how to vote guide, guide for families and carers, guide for service providers, voting walkthrough. 

#ENABLEtheVote worked across the political spectrum, empowering people who have learning disabilities to have their say in Scottish politics; to influence the debate on the issues that matter to them; make informed choices about who to vote for, and increase the number of people who have learning disabilities exercising their right to vote in Scottish elections.

  • 86% of people who have learning disabilities said #ENABLEtheVote helped them make informed decisions about their vote
  • 8 out of 10 exercised their right to vote!

It is crucial for a healthy democracy that there are no barriers to participating in elections and we were proud to have supported ENABLE’s #ENABLEtheVote campaign.

Read more about @ENABLEScotland and #partnerweek @YourVote_UK and on Facebook!

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Electoral Commission’s Strategic Review – Here’s what you had to say…

At the Electoral Commission, we aim to put voters at the heart of everything we do. To make sure that voters can continue to have confidence that the electoral process and party funding regime are run to high standards of integrity, we have been conducting a strategic review into what we do and why we do it.img_8288

Over the summer, we invited people to contribute their thoughts and opinions to the review, and asked for comment on risks and challenges to the electoral process, voters’ priorities and areas of policy that people think the Electoral Commission should be taking a lead on.

One overriding theme emerged from our respondents’ views of voters’ priorities and was mentioned in almost all submissions. This was the view that voters increasingly expect voting to be easily available, including by electronic means. In addition, a large majority of respondents explained that they think electoral modernisation should be an area where the Commission should lead the development of ideas.

Many respondents also described the challenges and risks of delivering local services in the context of diminishing resources and dwindling numbers of experienced electoral staff, with the number and complexity of different electoral events adding to this. However, many respondents also felt that these challenges present opportunities to identify new ways of doing things.

Another common theme that emerged was electoral integrity. Several respondents expressed support for the Commission’s call, first made in 2014, to introduce a requirement to provide photographic ID at polling stations; a recommendation which was echoed in Sir Eric Pickles’ recent review of electoral fraud.

The responses we received also made it clear that regulating party and election finance to achieve transparency and integrity continues to be very important to people. Some respondents made the point that regulation needs to keep pace with modern campaign and fundraising techniques, like crowdfunding and social media campaigning.

Having evaluated the responses we received during the consultation, we are now using them to inform our key priorities for the five years from April 2017, and these will be incorporated into our Corporate Plan. Common across all the responses is a wish for continuous improvements in elections and electoral registration to make sure we uphold a healthy democracy, and your input to the consultation has been invaluable in helping us identify the best way to achieve that.

You can read the full summary of the submissions made on our website.

Posted in Elections, Electoral Commission, Electoral Fraud, Electoral Law, Electoral Registration, General, Uncategorized, voters, voting | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Encouraging homeless people to make their voices heard

This week we are celebrating our incredible partners who help us to raise awareness of registering to vote. Alex, a volunteer for The Wallich, blogs about the importance of reaching out to those affected by housing difficulties or homelessness.

Alex lived in London and had a successful career in higher education before he ran into housing difficulties. He returned from London to South Wales, where his family lived, and over the past year has engaged with a variety of services in the Cardiff area, including The Wallich.

Alex has begun volunteering with The Wallich to get involved in ending homelessness in Wales. He is writing a blog about his experiences and has taken part in video campaigns and research.


Here’s what Alex had to say ahead of the May 2016 National Assembly for Wales and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Wales:

“I’ve spoken to and encountered plenty of homeless people, many of them using services provided by The Wallich. During these encounters, I’ve heard many articulate, thoughtful and strong opinions about loads of political issues.

It’s pretty obvious that homeless people in Wales are just as politically motivated and politically thoughtful as anybody else, and in some cases, more so. This doesn’t do much good, however, if you can’t use your opinions to change anything, or affect the political decisions made in Wales and Britain.

Registering to vote is the first step. If you don’t do this, you can’t vote, and if you can’t vote, you have no influence on who runs the country in Parliament, who represents us in Europe, or in the Welsh Assembly.  If you’re registered, you can even vote for your local Crime Commissioner, meaning you have a direct effect on law enforcement and legal issues in Wales today.

Registering to vote can also help you do things like rebuild your credit rating. Whatever your views are, and whether you want to vote or not, just registering to vote makes sure that you can be ‘seen’ or ‘counted’ by the system.  If you don’t even register, you can lose representation in Parliament because the number of MPs that exist is based on the number of people on the electoral roll.

I had to register to vote after I recently changed address and it was really easy.  It takes just a few minutes online and if you don’t have a fixed address, there’s a simple paper form to fill in.

It’s a common misconception that homeless people can’t vote – one that’s held by many homeless people themselves.  I’m currently volunteering with The Wallich to encourage homeless people to engage with democracy and make their voices heard.”

Read more about @TheWallich and #partnerweek @YourVote_UK and on Facebook!

Posted in Electoral Registration, Register to Vote, #yourvotematters, voting, Campaigns, police and crime commissioner, Wales, National Assembly for Wales, voters | Leave a comment