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The future of UK electoral administration

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Hilton Hotel, Brighton.   Venue of the 2015 Association of Electoral Administrators conference 2015
Hilton Hotel, Brighton. Venue of the 2015 Association of Electoral Administrators conference 2015

I was delighted to be invited to give the Opening Speech at the Association of Electoral Administrators conference in Brighton on Sunday night.  The topic of my talk was ‘From here to where? Modernisation of electoral administration in Britain.’

Elections receive widespread coverage in the news and media.  Many (normal) people will already be fed up with the media coverage on the UK general election in May, even if politicians, journalists and academics aren’t.  But the focus is usually on the outcomes, parties and candidates.  It is usually rare that we focus on the mechanics of how the election is run.

This is a major issue in the UK, however, because electoral registration rates are hitting crisis levels.  Back in 2012 the Electoral Commission estimated that one in five people are not on the register.  This is before the effects of individual electoral registration (IER) are felt, which is widely thought to lead to a decline in registration levels.  This week the UK will see a second National Voter Registration Day, organised by Bite the Ballot, to which civil society is being recruited to help drive up registration rates.  Even Ricky Tomlinson has added his voice to the cause.

With this in mind, I explored whether the registration and voting process could be made more convenient for the citizen.  The methods used to run elections in Britain have Victorian origins.  The methods for conducting the poll, for example, has its roots in the 1872 Secret Ballot Act.  Society has changed and moved on since then.

I explained that research has shown the following to be effective at increasing registration and turnout levels:

There is therefore a strong case for making these long term policy goals for 2025.

I stress 2025 and not 2020 because all of these goals would involve significant implementation challenges, which were widely discussed at the conference.  And we should listen carefully to the electoral community in moving forward.  They are uniquely placed to understand such challenges as they are on the front line of democracy.

As many administrators will tell you, the problem with the proposal for election-day registration is that when people currently register to vote online (it is great that they can now do this) the process is not yet finished.  Usually unbeknown to the voter, their details will be checked against government databases before their registration can be verified.  Electoral administrators need to time oversee this process.   Given that May 2015 will be first election under IER, they will need plenty of time to do this.

Likewise, it will take time to build safe and secure online voting systems.  Weekend voting is a challenge because electoral officials struggle to find premises.

Setting longer term goals, however, will allow a sense of direction forward.  Electoral administrators, academics, the media and civil society should work together to forge an agenda for how elections can be reformed.  This is important so that elections are not reformed with only a 5 year plan, set by governments who will have a watchful eye on how they can change the law to make it easier for them to win their next contest.

Planning ahead, we need to think about electoral administration in the round.  The side effects of reforms need to be considered.  IER, for example, might have reduced opportunities for electoral fraud.  However, as I warned in 2011, it may also lead to reduced registrations, involve extra costs, cause election officials to retire early or outreach schemes to end.  Elsewhere, I have proposed a framework for assessing electoral management to encourage us to think about this more holistically.

Most analysis of electoral administration usually ends there.  But I think that the ‘back office’ of elections are also important.  The policies that affect the people who run elections can facilitate better run elections.  This is especially important because it that it is becoming harder and harder to run elections.  Many electoral officials are having to ‘run faster, to standstill’.  We therefore need to:

We need a debate after May about how electoral administration can be improved for the long term.  In the meantime, it is all hands on deck to encouraging friends, colleagues and family members to register to vote.  Or as Jim Royle puts it more directly:

“Hey you, you lazy little sod, go and vote and get your mates to vote instead of just sitting there watching the telly.

(Re) Assessing Gordon Brown as Prime Minister

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Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown announced his decision to stand down as an MP at the next general election this week.

His time as Prime Minister has been much criticised but Jim Buller and I have recently published an article in Parliamentary Affairs arguing that we should factor context into our assessment of political leaders.  This leads to a different kind of assessment of Brown.

In a blog published on Eastminster (but also the LSE and PSA blog) we outline some of this argument.

Gordon Brown has announced his decision to ‘stand down’ as MP last night.  Brown had largely stepped back from ‘front-line’ politics after leaving office as Prime Minister but entered the Scottish independence debate in its final throws by making the case that it is ‘better together’.  He was quickly described as an ‘unlikely hero’ in many quarters.  Although this over-states his contribution,  his speech on the eve of the referendum, for some, saved the union.

In contrast, his premiership is often thought to have been a failure….

Read in full on Eastminster.

Improving Turnout: The Voter Engagement Inquiry

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voter engagementComing back from paternity leave this week, I was pleased find the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform’s report on Voter Engagement in the UK had been published.

I was honoured to give to be invited to give oral evidence to the committee earlier in the year.  Here are my written submissions of evidence to the committee:

I’ll blog more thoughts about the report in the coming weeks…..

UK electoral governance: a critical overview

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Toby James and A-WEB Director General Kim Jeong Gon
Toby James and A-WEB Director General Kim Jeong Gon

Last month I spoke at the prestigious Korean Civic Institute for Democracy in Seoul as part of their annual International Symposium on Civic Education.  I presented a paper which gave a critical overview of the UK’s increasingly complex system of electoral governance.

Comments on the paper are very welcome!

While in South Korea, I also had the opportunity to meet with officials from the Association of World Electoral Management Boards that was launched last year, but which already organises an impressive range of training schemes for electoral administrators worldwide.  I’m pictured on the right with the A-WEB Director General Kim Jeong Gon.

Electoral management in the Scottish independence referendum: a new blog post

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A_National_Conversation_launch (1)The Scottish independence referendum took place yesterday.  Thankfully, it seems that this was not one poling day which suffered from problems with electoral management.  I’ve written a blog post that explains more on Eastminster and the Democratic Audit.

Scotland has voted no in the referendum. National soul searching, political repercussions and significant constitutional reform may (or may not) follow, and will be the focus of attention in days, weeks, months and years to come.

But consider for a moment the story that did not break on the night of the referendum: problems with the conduct of the poll. This was because there was no story to report: it seems as if the poll was well managed and run.

This sounds unremarkable, after all, our assumption is usually that election officials should be able to conduct and run a poll without any problems. But rewind back to the 2010 general election and recall the scenes of chaos on the night as voters were ‘locked out’ of polling stations and denied their right to vote…..[continue reading on Eastminster and the Democratic Audit]

You might also be interested in Alistair Clark’s post on the Political Studies Association blog.

In defence of postal voting

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Toby James, UEAI was on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland show yesterday, briefly speaking about postal voting and voter fraud, in the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum.

Postal voting has become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years, but there have been some accusations that it allows electoral fraud:

For the next few days, you can watch the clip on the BBC IPlayer (the clip starts at 10:54), or read a blog that I wrote about this on the Democratic Audit blog, earlier in the year.

Trying to find a screen grab in which I did not look drunk or like I was trying to smooch the camera was difficult (I wasn’t trying to do either). 

Explaining why policies and political institutions change: a new article

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Government and OppositionI’ve just published a new article on why policies and political institutions change in the journal Government and Opposition.  It is a theory piece, which will largely interest for academics who teach/research theories of public policy, that proposes something called neo-statecraft theory.

You can download ‘Neo-Statecraft Theory, Historical Institutionalism and Institutional Change’ here (or ask me for a copy).  Here is the abstract:

This article provides a critical examination of the contribution that statecraft theory, which has been subject to recent revision and development, makes to the literature on institutional change. It articulates an emergent neo-statecraft approach that offers an agent-led form of historical institutionalism. This overcomes the common criticism that historical institutionalists underplay the creative role of actors. The article also argues that the approach brings back into focus the imperatives of electoral politics as a source of institutional change and provides a macro theory of change which is also commonly missing from historical institutionalist work. It can therefore identify previously unnoticed sources of stability and change, especially in states with strong executives and top-down political cultures.