Individual electoral registration: a car crash on the horizon for British democracy?

I have been writing and blogging about the individual electoral registration a lot over the past few two years or so.  The legislation has now been passed and we edge nearer and nearer to it becoming a reality.

The Democratic Audit have published the latest of my blogs today, which considers the implementation stages of the changes that could have significant consequences for British democracy.

The blog is available here:  Individual electoral registration still needs a lot of work, if it is not to be a car crash for British democracy

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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
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The paper can be downloaded here
For information on the conference and other papers click here 

US Supreme Court to further ignite the politics of election administration?

Voting rights rally in New York, 2011

The US Supreme Court could today set in motion the process of striking down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

This rules that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination need to get permission from the federal government before enacting changes to voting procedures.  It was a historic victory for the civil rights movement.

However, Shelby County, Alabama claim that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it reauthorised Section 5, which was only ever supposed to be temporary.

It also claims that such restrictions are not necessary because black voter registration and turnout rates now are high and that black elected officials are commonplace.

However, if the Act is overturned, expect the politics of election law to become more, not less furious.

Defenders of Section 5 cite continued forms of discrimination.  Section 5 was used to prevent changes to early voting and introduce identification requirements in these key states.  As Rick Hasan notes, if Section 5 goes, ‘expect to see more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.’

The US Supreme Court to hear Shelby v Holder

This will inevitably lead to a backlash from the Obama administration, the Democratic party and the civil rights movement.  There were continued problems in the 2012 US Presidential election, which the president promised to fix.  He recently announced the formation of the ‘bipartisan’ Bauer-Ginsberg commission in his State of the Union speech to improve voting procedures.

Expect the ever-unresolved politics of election administration in the US to rumble on….

How could the PCC elections have been better run?

The UK is having its first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) tomorrow, (Thursday 15th November). Citizens will have the chance to elect an official who will have the powers to:

  • appoint and dismiss chief constables
  • set out a five-year police and crime plan 
  • determine local policing priorities
Teresa May has claimed that they will ‘be a voice for local people’.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, there is a real concern that their democratic role will be undermined by low turnout.  So what could have been done?  
Ways increase turnout – lessons from academic research
Low turnout is a problem because elected Commissioners may not be representative of broader public opinion.  It also reduces the legitimacy of Commissioners and perhaps their effectiveness too.
In some senses, low turnout would not be a surprise because voter turnout is generally lower in ‘second order’ and ‘third order’ elections.  Citizens vote in elections that they consider to be more important, such as general elections.  Turnout would probably have been low, whatever.
However, based on established academic research government could have done much more to avoid low turnout.  It could have:
  • Hold the election at the weekend, not a Thursday.  Why?
    • Some democracies hold elections at weekends and research suggests that this helps turnout.
  • Better still, allow voting over several days.  Why?
    • As the US election showed, many US states allow voting weeks in advance.  Why not allow voting to take place over several days?  Research shows how this can improve turnout.
  • Provide more information about candidates. Why? 
    • As I said before, research shows that providing free-post leaflets to candidates helps boost turnout.  The government decided against this and instead set up a website.  This is problematic because a significant amount of the UK still doesn’t have internet access.  A telephone line for the public has been set up, but it has received criticisms.
  • Hold the elections in May.  Why?
    • November is a bad time for electoral officials who are busy updating the electoral register.  This means that they their resources are drained and they cannot invest in public awareness activities, as they might at other points in the year.  I interviewed many electoral administrators and they were concerned about a November election.
    • More importantly, research shows that combining elections can help boost turnout.  If elections were combined with local or other elections in May, turnout might have been much higher.  Ideally, combine it with a general election.
    • There have been some claims that November’s ‘early and dark nights’ reduce turnout, I’m not aware of any research that demonstrates this.  But please correct me if I’m wrong.  
  • Plan better.
    • Research shows that errors made in the way that elections are run, voters’ interactions with poll workers etc., can undermine confidence.  The Electoral Commission issued some early warnings that planning had not progressed sufficiently at the earlier stages.  There are some reports of leaflets not being delivered on time, problems with the telephone helpful for voters and confusion about who can and cannot be a candidate.  Some teething problems are inevitable, but they might have been avoided, and won’t help turnout and public trust.
Electing Commissioners on the Cheap
The bottom line seems to be that the election could have been improved if more was spent on running it. Understandably, the government will be keen to keep costs down.   Primarily, they will be concerned about arguments from the Labour Party that the money spent on the election could have been spent on more police officers.
However, if we are to have PCCs then it is important that they are not elected on the cheap.  It undermines the eventual Commissioners, it undermines the police, and it undermines democracy

Was Tony Blair a great prime minister?

Earlier in the summer, there was some speculation that Tony Blair may yet dramatically return as Prime Minister.

When asked by the Evening Standard whether he would want another term he said ‘sure’.

Some British Prime Ministers have returned to office after leaving power.  These include Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson.  Most recent leaders, as Kevin Theakston notes, tend to end up doing a variety of other things.

But was Tony Blair any good the first time around?

This is obviously a very controversial question.  For some he will be remembered as a ‘war monger’ because of his decision to invade Iraq; for others an apologist for Thatcherism, for dropping many of Labour’s left wing policies; for others the successful moderniser of the Labour party who presided over a successive years of economic prosperity and growth in Britain, and whose achievements also included peace in Northern Ireland.

There has been very little explicit scholarly work which has sort to evaluate Prime Ministerial performance.  This stands in great contrast to the the US where assessing American Presidents has span many pages.

Dr. Jim Buller (University of York) and I have just published a new article on how political scientists should assess British Prime Ministers.  Our method provides a framework for assessing whether they are successful at winning office and maintaining a sense of governing competence, particularly on the key issue of the economy.

The article considers the case of Tony Blair and argues that he was very successful at this.  His party won three full parliamentary terms in a row, a feat not achieved by any other Labour leadership clique. Moreover, it significantly altered the methods by which the party fought elections, reforms that remain in place to this day.

Similar points might be made about the criterion of governing competence. Not only did Blair and his colleagues re-establish Labour’s reputation in this area, but some of the policy changes put in place to fulfil this objective (particularly Bank of England independence) now have a lasting legacy.

Although Blair failed to devise a consistent and compelling narrative for New Labour, which had a significant impact on the climate of British politics, the party did win the political argument on important issues, such as greater expenditure on public services.

Party management was arguably Blair’s least strong suit in the sense that he was unable to prevent the splits between leader and rank and file that had plagued his successors. But overall, Blair’s leadership deserves a very high place in any future league table of British prime ministers.

It has to be said that a Blair return is some way off.  Ed Miliband has built up a lead in the polls and the questions about his leadership have retreated.  If he loses the next general election then he may not survive as party leader and we should expect a leadership contest, but there will be plenty of younger leadership candidates in the frame if that happens.  Unfortunately for Blair one poll has suggested that Labour support would drop (except in the South-East) if he was to become leader again.

So was Tony Blair a great Prime Minister?  Here are some of his most famous moments, to help you decide.

Election 2012 shows that problems with US election administration remain

Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States.  Thankfully, there is a winner with a significant margin meaning that there is not a repeat of 2000.  Twelve years ago the result was decided by the US Supreme Court after the controversy over ‘hanging chads’ and ‘butterfly ballots’ in Florida.

However, had the election been tighter, would this have been the case?

What is clear is that problems remain with the administration of elections in the US.  Across the country, lengthy queues formed at polling stations. An election official from the Marion County Election Board, Indianapolis, Indiana tweeted a picture (below) demonstrating the length of queues forming at one polling station.   Did voters patiently wait or vote, or did the queue deter them?  ‘[W]e did lose a few who didn’t want to wait’, admitted the election official.

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Queues form in Indianapolis, IN. Source: Marion County (IN) Election Board
Elsewhere, there was widespread confusion in Philadelphia.  Republicans had sought to introduce a voter ID law but a judge ruled that implementation should wait until after the Presidential election.  Widespread confusion ensued among voters and poll staff.  Was ID required or not (in fact, it was needed only for first time voters)?  There were reports that some poll workers and ‘election observers’ were deliberately asking for voter ID, even though it was not required.  One tweeter (below) posted a picture of these signs that they found and took down.
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Voter ID signs in PA
The US, often held up as a pillar of democracy, has a darker side to its elections.  Often these problems are a result of deliberate strategies of vote suppression.  Politicians and their agents perceive that they can gain electoral advantage from discouraging their opponents’ supporters to vote. Voter ID laws have been shown to be particularly ‘effective’ at reducing turnout among certain populations.  They are also a useful method for threatening voters at polling stations.

Another tactic is deliberately under-funding election boards.  The Marion County Election Board, referred to above, complained that they wanted more poll sites, but ‘Republicans had vetoed our resolution for more at each election since 2010’ (sic).  In Florida 2000, it was areas dominated by Democrat voters that saw the greatest queues form – areas which suffered from under-funding.  Republican politicians held the purse-strings.

Problems are not always caused deliberately.  They can stem from failures of electoral management.  Poor planning on behalf of electoral officials and a lack of training can lead to problems for the voters.  Some polling stations, including some in Ohio, ran out of ballot papers.  In Miami-Dade County, host to the problems in 2000, scanning machines broke down leaving voters to queue for hours. Further problems will problem emerge over the coming weeks.

There is an urgent need to understand how failures of electoral management can be avoided (or reduced).  They are not the reserve of newly democratising countries or electoral autocracies such as Russia.  They also take place in the US, and, as scenes from the 2010 general election demonstrated, the UK.  The UK Electoral Commission has developed some strategies for improving election administration which my research has suggested has had some positive effects.  However, academics and policy makers should work together to find ways to improve elections.  Efforts to suppress legitimate voters require rigorous scrutiny from the media and public.

Thankfully, the 2012 election appears to have been decided by the voters, not the administration of votes.  But things could have been very different.

NFK-NOP publish report on improving electoral registration

The UK Cabinet Office published a report last week on the attitudes of under-represented groups towards electoral registration and individual registration. 

It was written by the consumer marketing company NFK-NOP.

Legislation to change the way that UK citizens register to vote is working its way through Parliament.  Registration rates have been falling dramatically in the UK.

Some of the findings from their qualitative interviews do chime with some of the academic literature on electoral registration/voter participation (including my research on the experiences of electoral administrations). Notably:

  • Many citizens who are interested in politics don’t register because they lack the information or ‘triggers’ to do so (p.7-8)
  • Some decline in electoral registration may occur amongst those who are currently registered by other people (p.12).
  • There are concerns about use of national insurance numbers because of the prospects of identity fraud (p.13).
  • There is support for the idea of allowing registration when accessing other government services (p.13). 
  • Young people suggest smartphone apps should be available (p.13-4)

Overall, a strong theme is the need for information campaigns. This is a useful study, but there is still a need for further academic and policy research on electoral registration in Britain.  Information campaigns can only go so far and there is a need to make registration simple and to open multiple channels for voter registration.

See my earlier blog post here.

Update:  see criticism from the Electoral Reform Society of the report recommendations here: http://www.lgcplus.com/briefings/services/elections/personal-letters-key-to-voting-change/5047735.article

Cabinet Office 2012