Inclusion Scotland’s Access to Politics project – the journey so far

A guest blog by Ethan Young, Civic Participation Officer at Inclusion Scotland

True and effective democracy must reflect the society it serves. One in five people in Scotland identify as being disabled, yet we are drastically underrepresented in elected office. As a result, society lacks in the absence of lived experience and the breadth of expertise that disabled people can bring.

Research from our disabled interns placed within Scotland’s largest political parties showed that one of the many barriers Disabled People face in running for political office is the additional costs. Additional impairment related costs are a societal barrier that a non-disabled person wouldn’t have to face, and in the past, this is a factor that has been overlooked by those organising the processes involved. Civic participation is a human right, therefore disabled people shouldn’t be expected to fund these additional costs to equally participate, particularly given that disabled people are vastly more likely to experience poverty and additional financial pressures.

In 2016 the Scottish Government announced the creation of the Access to Elected Office Fund to cover these costs and allow disabled people to fight a campaign for public office on a more even playing field. Administered by Inclusion Scotland, the pilot project for the fund opened to disabled people running for the Local Authority Elections in May 2017.

The fund supported 44 candidates, 39 of whom became candidates and 15 were successfully elected.  The fund covered a wide range of adjustments to reduce barriers, such as; British Sign Language interpreters, transport, personal assistance support, assistive technology and other forms of communications support. The pilot project was seen widely as a major success and the Scottish Government committed to the fund being available for any Scottish by-elections and up to the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

Ethan Young of Inclusion Scotland with Scottish political party leaders

Ethan Young with Scottish political party leaders

The evaluation of the pilot confirmed that there was still much to do to decrease the barriers that disabled people face in becoming active in politics.  It was recommended that political parties could be doing more. We had built up a strong network of cross party disabled activists from our Access to Politics support and advice service and we invited them all to come and help us develop a Charter that would help guide political parties to fulfil their duties of inclusion. Together, we produced the Access to Politics Charter with guidance notes that all the parliamentary parties and their leaders signed up to. The challenge for us now is to make sure that political parties live up to these promises, and to spread these approaches wider to other key forms of civic and political engagement.

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When does an allegation result in an investigation?

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

Recent reports in the media have thrown a spotlight on the Electoral Commission’s investigations into the spending returns submitted by registered campaigners at the EU Referendum. As the regulator of political finance in the UK, it is proper that the decisions we take are open to scrutiny.

To date the Electoral Commission has published details of 34 investigations arising from the EU Referendum where offences have been found. They cover campaigners for both the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ outcomes. Other investigations are ongoing. Every month, we publish information on closed cases.

When does the Electoral Commission open an investigation?

We have enforcement powers to investigate alleged breaches of the political finance rules as well as breaches we identify proactively, and powers to impose a range of sanctions.

In order to find an offence, we must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. That requires a high level of evidence and a high bar which must be met.

‘Investigation’ is a word with a specific and formal meaning for us, which sits in the context of a developing chain of stages. It is worth setting that out briefly here.

We first make initial enquiries to identify whether there may have been either an offence or a contravention of the rules; if so, then we will begin the assessment process.

Assessments are a consideration of the issues and evidence to determine whether to investigate. The conclusion of an assessment will not always lead to the opening of an investigation. We will only open an investigation where we consider that it is in the public interest, proportionate and justifies the use of our resources in this way.

We have previously prepared a briefing which provides more details on what each stage of the process entails. This is also illustrated with the following flowchart.

Investigations flow chart

What level can the Commission fine?

Recently, there has also been some attention as to what we are able to fine political parties and campaigners for breaches of the rules.

We are limited to fining a maximum of £20,000 per offence under the law. Some investigations lead to sanctions on multiple offences, resulting in a higher total fine. However, in order to find an offence, we must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. That requires a high level of evidence and a high bar which must be met. We will only find an offence if we are satisfied we have met that bar.

We want to ensure the size of monetary penalties for breaches of the political finance rules provides a proportionate deterrent. Otherwise it is possible that some parties and campaigners will see our fines as simply a cost of doing business. We therefore consider that it is time for our sanction limit of £20,000 to be substantially increased, in line with that being applied by comparable regulators.

In some recent cases where we have applied our maximum fine, we considered higher fines would have been appropriate had we the ability to levy them. It is essential that the public have confidence elections and referendums are conducted fairly and in accordance with the rules set by Parliament. That is why it is our strong view that the UK Government should increase the Commission’s maximum fines.

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Enhancing and ensuring transparency in political party finance

By Carol Sweetenham, ‘Party Finance Regulation Reloaded’ Project Manager

Party finance and registration is central to the Commission’s remit to ensure fairness and transparency in the political system. Making information available on party accounts, spending and donations is at the heart of having a fair and open democracy. Our Party and Election Finance Online system is where we record this information and make it available for public search. There are few systems like it elsewhere, and it is cited as an example of transparency.

However it is precisely because it was a pioneering system that we now need to replace it. Technology and expectations have both moved on over the last decade and we need to bring the system up to modern standards.

If the new system is to succeed it must be easy for people to both input and extract information.

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Involving those who use the system will be key in achieving user friendly design, so we’re delighted that key users have agreed to be involved. With their input and constant dialogue with the developers we can tailor the system to users’ needs, testing it thoroughly at every stage.

Of course the system is there to ensure that the Commission and those who participate in elections act in accordance with the law. But we see this as an opportunity to make it easier for parties and other regulated groups to comply with the law, and to make processes more efficient for everyone involved, including those who use the system to find and analyse information. This feature is key in maintaining a high standard of transparency.

We were therefore very pleased to be invited to an expert roundtable in Lithuania about e-reporting in political finance – how public organisations publish information about election spending and donations online.  The conference was an opportunity for election bodies from across Europe and the United States to share expertise.

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Organised by the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the event covered transparency during elections and the role of websites and databases for the public, journalists and academics to search freely.

There were attendees from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Norway, France, Spain, Serbia, the Ukraine, the United States and the UK, with the three Baltic nations leading the discussions around their relatively new online systems. A Vice Chair of the Federal Election Commission talked about the American approach to e-reporting and how it has developed since the 1970s.

Policy Manager for the Electoral Commission, Kate Engles, gave a presentation about how the UK Electoral Commission presents UK election spending and donations information. We have a detailed searchable database of party accounts, election and referendum spending and campaigner donations.  This information has to be reported to us under electoral law, and we are required to make this information publicly available.

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We consistently look for more engaging ways to present the information, such as interactive graphs that we publish on our website through a program called ‘tableau’, and infographics that we share via our Twitter account.

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Have you taken a look at our current reporting database? You can search by party or campaigner name, electoral event or year to find information on donations and spending and elections and referendums.

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We’re always keen to hear from people who use our database how it works for them, so whether you’re a member of the public, party or campaigner, or journalist do let us know.

 

 

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4 things you need to know about casting your vote on 3 May

By Emma Hartley, Head of Campaigns 

According to our research, 80% of the public said it was easy to find information on how to cast their vote ahead of the 2017 local elections – let’s keep this up again this year!

We need your help in sharing essential voting information to support people ahead of the local elections on Thursday.

Share these facts to spread the word.

1. Where your polling station is

To cast your vote on polling day, you must go to your designated polling station. Find your polling station using the handy postcode finder on our website. You can also find this information on your poll card.

Polling stations are open from 7am until 10pm on polling. You must go to your own polling station to cast your vote.

If you’ve been nominated as someone’s proxy, you’ll need to make sure you go to their polling station to vote on their behalf.

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2. ‘X’ marks the spot

To cast your vote, put an ‘X’ next to the candidate(s) you wish to vote for on your ballot paper.

Depending on where you live, you may be voting for more than one candidate. The instructions at the top of the ballot paper and in the polling booth will tell you how many candidates you can vote for.

If you aren’t sure who is standing for election in your area, you can find the candidates by entering your postcode on our website.

3. You can ask for help at the polling station

Assistance is available for anyone who requires it at the polling station.

If you are a first-time voter, the polling station staff will be happy to help answer any questions you have.

If you are disabled, you can ask the Presiding Officer to help mark your ballot paper for you. You can also ask someone else you know to help you.

If you have a visual impairment, you can ask to see a large print ballot paper. You can also ask for a special voting device that allows you to vote on your own in secret.

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4. Don’t run out of time

Polling stations are open from 7am until 10pm this Thursday. But don’t leave it too late, 25% of people didn’t vote at the 2017 local elections because they ran out of time.

If you are in a queue at your polling station at 10pm you will be allowed to vote.

Parents are allowed to bring children with them when they go to vote at the polling station.

If you’ve applied for a postal vote but haven’t sent back your ballot paper, you can hand it in at a polling station in your area by 10pm on polling day.

You can read more about voting in the 2018 local elections on our website.

Read this blog and now want to help your friends and family cast their vote? Share our essential voter information on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. 

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

By Andy O’Neill, Head of Electoral Commission, Scotland

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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.

You may also be interested in:

 

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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.

Mencap guide 1

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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