UK electoral governance: a critical overview

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.


Centralising electoral management

c2bd1-ballotI gave a paper at the Political Studies Association Annual Conference in Manchester last week.  The paper was on the effects of centralising electoral management.  You can download the paper here.  The paper argued:

Concerns about the quality of electoral management have been raised in many established democracies. The centralisation of electoral management has often been proposed to avoid problems resulting from ‘localism’. However, there is no research on the effects that such centralisation might have in practice. This paper identifies the effects of measures introduced by the UK Electoral Commission to centralise management in two referendums. Semi-structured interviews were used with those who devised the policy instrument and those who were subject to it. The introduction of ‘command and control’ directions from the centre had some predicted positive and some negative outcomes. However, an unpredicted finding was the decline of staff morale and souring of relations amongst stakeholder organisations. The paper therefore argues that the process of making major organisational changes can make the performance of electoral management boards unpredictable and this can have unintended consequences for electoral integrity.

Why are failures of electoral management everywhere?

Examples of errors and incompetence in the organisation of elections can now be readily found in many democracies around the world.  Consider:

  • In the UK 2010 general election, a number of polling stations run out of ballot papers or had queues which meant that citizens were unable to cast their vote.
  • A recent report on the running of the Canadian elections showed that over 500 serious errors were made, on average, per electoral district in the 2011 federal elections.  These were so serious that the election result was initially annulled by a judge.
  • Reports from the Malaysian 2013 elections that officials were not shaking the bottles of indelible ink before marking voters fingers.  The result was that some could wash off the ink and vote twice. (See the Video on the right) 

What is going on?  Surely running an election can’t be that difficult?  After all, many democracies have been doing this for years without making such terrible errors.

Last week I gave a conference paper at the Annual Workshop on Electoral Integrity at Harvard University on why electoral officials are increasingly having problems.  I interviewed many officials in the UK about the challenges that they face.  It seems, that running elections is becoming increasingly difficult. Challenges in the UK include:

  • Greater legal complexity – a greater diversity and number of elections makes them harder to administer
  • More actors involved in elections – devolution and the fragmentation of central government makes elections more difficult to co-ordinate
  • Increased population movements – increased immigration and high levels of internal migration make the register difficult to compile.
  • The rise of social media – errors are reported more quickly and loudly because of the rise of Twitter etc
Elections have therefore become much more difficult to administer in the UK and it is more difficult to maintain high levels of satisfaction amongst citizens with electoral services.

Some of these changes may be specific to the UK, but most can be found in many established democracies.  This means that concerns about electoral integrity are no longer the preserve of new and emerging democracies.  They are likely to be found in the backyard of the established democracies that were once thought of as exemplars to the world for the practice of elections.

Ballot papers from the 2010 British General election
The paper can be downloaded here
For information on the conference and other papers click here