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

Is online registration a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Online voter registration was in the news last week.

In the US state of Washington citizens will be able to register to vote via Facebook.  This will use a piece of software developed specially by Facebook and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, in Britain, it was reported that Harrow has become the first local authority to allow online re-registration for those already on the electoral register.

Many electoral administrators around the world may therefore be looking to online registration to solve problems with the cost of elections and low registration rates.  As the Electoral Reform Society tweeted: ‘[b]earing in mind the UK’s poor registration rates, is this the future?’.

A remedy for declining registration?

The development of online registration is especially important in Britain.  Here, the government’s legislation to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) will have its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday.  My research on the effects of IER (a copy is also available on my website) found that we should expected IER to reduce electoral registration rates.  We therefore need other ways to increase registration rates in Britain to offset this decline.

The UK government has always been in favour of online registration and it published the eagerly awaited implementation plan for IER last week included.

Online registration is a good thing though, yes?  I’ve said so before. The logic is that by opening up as many methods of registering to vote as possible, registration rates will rise.  Citizens are increasingly online and government services need to adapt accordingly.

However, there might be a catch.  Faced with budget cuts electoral administrators may use online registration as a replacement for other methods.  This seems to be Harrow’s thinking.  They have introduced it partly as a way of saving money.  Fortunately, they appear to be keeping the ‘old fashioned’ paper registration mechanisms too.

This line of thinking informed the government’s decision to not pay for campaign literature for candidates for the UK’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.  Instead, of paying for one free leaflet per candidate, there would be one website on which citizens could find out about who was standing, and what for.  This was quickly criticised for reinforcing digital divides and reducing electoral participation.

There is also this recent research paper by Elizabeth A. Bennion (Indiana University) and  David W. Nickerson (University of Notre-Dame) which suggests that online registration can make citizens less likely to register.  Citizens need regular reminders, they claim, in order to re-register online.

The devil is therefore in the detail.  Citizen’s experience of online registration therefore needs further research and its implementation in Washington, the UK and everywhere else should be carefully monitored.

Is UK electoral registration ‘improving’? If not, why not?

The UK Electoral Commission has just published a new report detailing the results of the performance standards for electoral registration officers.

This is an annual report.  The standards have been in place since 2008.  The standards arose in 2006 after there were concerns that not all local authorities were not doing everything that they could to promote electoral registration and run elections effectively.

The report details an improvement according to the standards.  Less and less electoral registration officers are now not meeting the benchmark standards. However, the report expresses concern that 58 electoral registration officers don’t meet standard 3 – house to house enquiries to complete the register.

A conference paper that I’ve written explains why some electoral registration officers consider it important to meet the standards, and others do not.  The paper will be presented at a workshop on electoral integrity in Madrid next month.  This is based on over 70 interviews with local election officials during 2011.  The research was funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation.

Electoral registration officers see it as important to meet the standard for a number of reasons, but key amongst these are the effects that not meeting the standard can have on their personal and organisational reputations.  Making the results of non-performance more widely known can act as a significant trigger for change.  Very often, the results of the standards go by unnoticed by the media and the public.

Many do not meet the standard.  The key reasons are that officials think that the standards won’t improve elections, that there were insufficient incentives to change practices, they had insufficient resources to do so, that meeting the standard was not possible or that there were strategic incentives in not meeting the standard at a given point in time.

Nonetheless, the presence of the standards has a number of effects on confidence in the electoral processes amongst elite actors, if not, the public.  They are an important way of improving election administration.

The Electoral Commission has warned that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, currently being considered by Parliament, may water down the requirements on local elections staff to meet the standards.  It states that officials must only do what is ‘reasonably practical’ rather than ‘all necessary steps’.  The Electoral Commission therefore proposes revising the Bill.  This research supports this claim.

There might be more scope, however, to include academic research and local elections staff in the devising of indicators for the future.  The Electoral Commission is likely to need to have a new set of performance indicators for electoral registration officers once individual electoral registration is introduced.

New Research on Individual Electoral Registration – Policy Implications

Most discussion was about the House of Lords reform following the Queen’s Speech last week.  However, the government also introduced the Electoral Registration And Administration Bill into Parliament.  Amongst other things, the bill intends to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) for elections in England, Wales and Scotland. 


At almost the same time, I am about to have an article that I have written on the likely effects of introducing individual registration published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.  You can download the article here


This research is built upon findings from an ongoing project funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation on election administration in the UK.  Earlier findings were presented to a House of Commons Select Committee in September last year. It is interesting to note that since then the government has already shifted its position on a number of policy positions from the proposals first introduced in June last year.  For example, the ‘opt-out’, whereby citizens could tick a box and not be included on the register appears to have been dropped. Nick Clegg hinted that this might happen in October last year.  The proposed Bill suggests that there will be now be a penalty for those who do not register. 


However, the article has a number of important policy implications and recommendations for the legislation and future practice of elections in the UK:

  1. Individual registration is likely to lead to a considerable decline in levels of registration, especially amongst the younger, elder and minority populations.  The government could consider therefore other new  schemes offset the anticipated decline.  These might include:
  • Online registration (this was always the plan, it seems, but it is important that it is taken forward….)
  • Allowing citizens to register to vote when accessing other government services such as obtaining a driving licence.   The majority of new registrants in America register to vote via this mechanism.  This could be an especially effective way of targeting younger citizens.
  • Providing penalties for those who do not register (which now appears to be on the cards…)
  1. Individual registration is a more resource intensive way of compiling the electoral register than household registration.  There may also be many unforeseen costs to local government at a time that they are faced with budget cuts.  Returning and registration officers may therefore make cuts in other services to allow for the introduction of individual registration.  Measures should be put in place to ensure sufficient long-term funding of elections.  This could involve ring-fencing new funding for election departments.
  2. The requirement for citizens to provide personal identifiers, such as a national insurance number, may confuse many voters.  The views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully monitored through survey research after the implementation of IER.
Changes to the way the electoral register is compiled does not always capture the public or media’s interest. But it has important implications for how many people vote, electoral fraud, whether people perceive electoral institutions to be fair and sometimes who wins elections.  There have been some excellent recent blog posts from the like of Ros Baston and others in recent weeks.  Let’s hope there remains continued public interest in this important, but easily forgotten, issue.

Electoral musical chairs comes to Wales – will voters and politicians lose out?




Electoral law is in the news again in the UK, and this time it’s Wales’ turn. Radical plans to reduce the number of constituencies in Wales were published by the Boundary Commission this week. But what do they mean for Wales?


What is happening?

One of the first Bills introduced to the UK Parliament by the coalition government formed in May 2010 involved reducing the number of MPS from 650 to 600. The Coalition justified this on the basis that it would save the country money. The reputation of MPs was low at the time on the back of the expenses scandal so it was popular policy. However, partisan calculations were not doubt present as well.

Boundaries are proposed in the UK by independent bodies called Boundary Commissions, not by politicians themselves (thankfully!). Reducing the number of MPs requires reducing the number constituencies so they have been busy drawing up new proposal to cut the UK electoral map into 600 rather than 650 pieces. Plans have already been published for Scotland and England. This week it was Wales’ turn.

What effect will it have for Wales?

Four main things:

Unfamiliar and confusing seats

First, old constituencies will largely go out the window. There will be 30 brand new constituencies and 15 will be wholly contained within a new constituency. Only 10 remain the same. You may need to check where your MP will be!

These new constituencies may be unfamiliar but also confusing. This is because the government has also stipulated that constituencies must be drawn up by maths and not communities. Boundaries used to be based on the idea of communities – MPs were to be elected to represent distinct communities, and electoral equality was secondary to that goal. The Boundary Commission had the thankless task of drawing up boundaries which are between nearly 73,000 and just over 80,000 voters. Many constituencies have therefore had to be broken up to meet this criteria. Small towns that used to be a constituency may not be big enough any more and might have to join with somewhere else. There will be some odd constituencies. One Plaid MP expressed concern about:

” two totally different communities being put together despite a large mountain separating them, as well as a number of proposals where two villages in the same community have been separated. We are also worried by the size of some of the proposed constituencies.”

For example, Caerphilly will no longer have its own constituency because it will be twinned with Cardiff North. Llanelli will take some areas currently within the Gower boundary. Neath will expand to include parts of Gower, Swansea East and Aberavon. There’ll be a new seat called Gower and Swansea West.

Less power for Wales in Westminster

Many people in Wales may not be concerned that 10 MPs will be losing their jobs – espeically at a time when many in Wales are losing theirs. But Wales and individual citizens will lose out. There will be fewer MPs at Westminister representing Wales. Most of Wales’ constituencies were around 57,000 citizens in size. The new electoral quota of c.76,000 registered voters means than Wales will have only 30 MPs, rather than 40. This cuts Wales’ representation by a quarter. Architects of the system say that this is because Wales has long been overrepresented in Westminster in the past and the new changes make for equal representation. Nonetheless, Wales will have less influence in UK government as a result of these changes. Individual citizens may find that their MP is now more remote and less able to represent their views because they have to represent 75,000 citizens and not 53,000.

Career uncertainty for politicians

There will be considerable political uncertainly for MPs and in the longer term, AMs. Constituency redrawing always brings uncertainly for politicians because it makes their jobs unsafe. Many politicians have safe seats which they know they will win. However, this time it is an even more intense game of musical chairs with 10 seats being taken away. There will be a political scrap within parties for prize seats. Some high profile politicians may end up without a job.

More re-drawing for 2020

Further re-drawing may happen again very soon. The new system bases the constituencies on the number of registered voters in each constituency. However, the UK government is currently planning to make changes to the way that people register which is widely thought to reduce the number of people on the register. From 2014 it plans to introduce a system of individual registration which will make it more bureaucratic for a citizen to register to vote. When this was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002 there was a 10% drop in the register, within the effect being greater in urban areas. If registration levels drop by 10% in the UK, then most constituencies will not be the right size anymore and another round of constituency redrawing may begin.

The government denies that a decline in levels of registration will occur as a result of plans to implement individual electoral registration. My own research suggests, that unless serious compensatory mechanisms are put in place, this will happen.

Who will gain?

The Conservatives in Westminster had become concerned with how the existing boundary system benefitted the Labour Party in general elections and this was one of the motives for the reforms. The changes will certainly help the Conservatives in 2015, although not as much as they might hope. It will however, effectively reduce representation in areas that do not support the Conservatives e.g. Wales and urban Britain in general.

Within Wales the position is different. Increasing the size of the constituencies tends to disadvantage the smaller parties – these being the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Conservatives and Liberals may find themselves with less Welsh representation in London – which would seem like an own goal.

If we get a new electoral system for the Welsh Assembly as a result of the constituency changes, then power within Wales will also be significantly affected.

What happens next?


The Boundary Commission has only published proposals. They will undertake public consultations (details are on their website) and voters can attend these and have their say about their constituency. There is time to make your views known.

The final proposals have also been to be approved by Parliament. It was initially thought that this approved was a given. The Coalition has a majority in government so would be very likely to approve their own plans. However, some Conservative MPs have become very concerned about how disruptive these plans have become – especially if their own seat is at risk. Baroness Warsi has said that ‘I agree with some of our MPs that some proposals are mad and insane’ . Mark Field MP has described the changes as ‘…somewhat more disruptive than we had in mind’. There is still every chance that the whole process might collapse and constituency redrawing never happens.