Latest Event Updates
The UK’s recent Brexit referendum will probably be looked back on, as political scientists say, as a critical juncture in British politics. It had profound consequences for the governance of Britain, party politics and international relations.
But was it a referendum that was run well? Did the electoral machinery hold up in the face of high scrutiny? In the run up to the poll there were concerns raised about electoral fraud and a high profile crash of the voter registration website.
In a new report, undertaken on behalf of the Electoral Commission, Alistair Clark and I evaluate the referendum. We show that concerns about fraud where eventually misplaced, management systems worked well and electoral officials deserve much praise. But there were other problems such as evidence that electoral services were underfunded and weaknesses with the systems used to compile the electoral register which suggest long term reforms are needed.
Last night, in the final hours before the EU voter registration deadline, the official registration website crashed. Many people who were wanting to register because they were inspired by the TV debates, or were planning to register late, were locked out of the referendum. Many of these were young people wanting to vote for the first time.
The root causes of the problem are clear. In fact, last week I co-blogged Bite the Ballot and Lord Rennard on how to stop a last minute registration rush. Britain’s electoral registers were missing millions of people. In 2014, there were 7.5 such million missing voters. Since then, the electoral register has contracted further. In the heat of an impassioned debate about the future of Britain, the demand from unregistered voters overwhelmed the government’s technical infrastructure.
Such a situation is entirely avoidable. Earlier in the year, our report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation on the ‘Missing Millions’ presented tried and tested solutions to keep the register up-to-date all year round. For example, in many democracies around the world, automatic registration is used to avoid a last minute administrative challenge. Why set ourselves up for a fall?
As the UK heads to the polls for ‘Super Thursday’ today’s headlines are being taken over by events in Barnet. Reports are that many people are being turned away from the polls because their name is not on the register. It seems that many polling stations had wrong/incomplete registers. The Independent are reporting that:
‘An estimated 250,000 people were going to the polls in Barnet to vote for the London Mayor, London Assembly members and council by-election in one ward.’
It so happens we’ve been doing some research on this. Here are some important points:
Voters are often turned away from the polls
- Alistair Clark and I did a survey of polling stations at the 2015 general election. We found that the polls generally go smoothly in the UK, so events on this scale are not representative of the whole of the UK where the polling process generally goes smoothly. BUT...
- We did find that two-thirds of polling stations turned away at least one voter because their name was not on the electoral register. The current evidence is therefore that voters are turned away from the polls more frequently than thought. In general though, it is because the electoral registers are not complete. Their levels of completeness have been in long-term decline and this has been accelerated by the introduction of individual electoral registration. It is not clear yet what the source of the problem is in Barnet, however.
2. Staff morale and resources in electoral services is a key problem
- Today’s Super Thursday is the first election since the completion of individual electoral registration (IER). In December 2015, people who had not re-registered under this system were removed from the electoral roll.
- But one under reported effect of IER is the effect that it has had on the staff who run elections. In the Missing Millions report that I published with Bite the Ballot last month it was revealed that electoral services up and down the country have faced a perfect storm of challenges under IER. Moving to IER has involved major organisational and technological change in the context of major cuts to local government funding. Half of electoral administrators said that they had thought about leaving their job at some point in the last year. Why does this matter? Because running elections is difficult and we will only see more problems like those seen today in Barnet without experienced, dedicated and motivated staff who aren’t stretched beyond capacity.
3. This could be avoided in the future with resources and electronic poll books
- Individual errors happen. And with millions of votes being cast, and thousands of staff working on election day, this has to be acknowledged. But in our report, we suggest some reforms that could help problems of this sort being avoided:
- Stronger investment in electoral services.
- Monitor the resources and workplace experiences of electoral service staff
- The use of electronic poll books. In Chicago, rather than relying on correct paper copies to be delivered to polling stations, polling staff have access to a live electronic register. This ensures that the latest and correct register is available and allows citizens to vote at any polling station.
Earlier in the month I attended the 13th meeting of Electoral Management Bodies organised by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, held in Bucharest, Romania. Leontine Loeber and I presented our proposed research project on ‘Improving electoral management: The organisational determinants of electoral integrity’.
The aim of the project is to increase the existing understanding of the variation in institutional design of EMBs worldwide and the impact of EMB institutional design for election integrity. The project’s methods involve launching the first-ever survey of electoral administrators across Europe. The project team includes researchers from UEA, but also Holly Ann Garnett (McGill University Canada), Carolien van Ham and (University of New South Wales, Australia).
In the conclusion of the conference, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe endorsed the project to undertake a survey of electoral management bodies’ personnel in Europe and encourages electoral management bodies to nominate a survey facilitator and to complete the survey.
We plan to present the findings of the project at a future Venice Commission conference. Watch this space.
Last month, Bite the Ballot and I presented a draft report to the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation. The report pointed out, at a time when millions are missing from the electoral register, what can be done to bring about a more inclusive electoral register.
The APPG has now published a final version of this report. It clearly sets out 25 measures that can be introduced. It is also a call to action for politicians, civil society groups and local authorities.
The issue is especially pressing as we enter the final stages of the campaign for the Brexit referendum.
A report on the 2014 registers by the Electoral Commission suggested that 7.5 million people could be missing. Our analysis, is that roughly 3 million of the ‘missing millions’ are from the 18 to 30 age group. This was before individual electoral registration was introduced, which my recent survey suggested has negatively affected completeness further and also had many unintended effects on electoral services. All the findings are in the report.
Elections could not happen without the hundreds of thousands of people who give up their time to staff polling stations and ensure votes are issued, cast & counted. These poll workers are a crucial resource for electoral officials and many countries experience problems recruiting sufficient numbers of poll workers. Indeed, approximately 120,000 people are estimated to have worked in the 2015 British general election.
Given these are potentially high stress, low pay temporary positions, this poses an important question for electoral democracy and those interested in electoral integrity: why do people choose to give up their time to provide this crucial service to their fellow citizens?
Alistair Clark and I present some findings in an conference paper for the UK Political Studies Association conference next week.
It is a first draft so any comments welcome!
Download it here: here
The number of people on the UK electoral register has been in long-term decline. It was estimated that up to 7.5 million people were not registered in 2014.
At the end of the transition to individual electoral registration, there are another 1.4 million fewer names on the register. Dramatically, the number of attainers, our next generation of voters, fell by 40%.
Last week, Bite the Ballot and I presented a draft report to the All-Party Parliamentary Party on Democratic Participation. This provided a 24 point action plan for how levels of electoral registration could be improved.
The report also included some headlines from a survey of electoral officials that I have undertaken. Half of electoral administrators said that they had thought about leaving their job at some point in the last year. Why does this matter? Because running elections is difficult and we will only see more problems without experienced, dedicated and motivated staff who aren’t stretched beyond capacity.
You can read more about the report in this PSA blog.
And download the report here: