Jenny Watson’s lecture on the modernisation of the electoral administration system

In the latest Constitution Unit seminar, Jenny Watson, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, provided the audience with a very eloquent account of the challenges and opportunities presented by the imminent and future work towards electoral modernisation. Drawing upon the effective steps that have already been taken by the Labour administration and most recently the coalition government, she elaborated on the likely effects of the new legislation including the transition to Individual Electoral Registration and emphasised the imperative need for the further modernisation of the electoral administration system.

The Electoral Commission has always played a vital role towards that direction through a number of proposals and recommendations aiming to improve the election process. But it is the need for comprehensive legislation that will create clarity and transparency and ensure that ‘confidence and the effectiveness of our system will be maintained’ as Watson noted. A major step was taken in 2013 with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act which replaced Household Electoral Registration (HER) with Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and introduced new close of poll arrangements. It is expected that the move to IER will improve the security of the registration process and increase registration mainly among younger voters, students and the mobile population. However, in an increasingly disenfranchised society, there is an urgent need to reform the electoral framework, making it more efficient and less complex. As Jenny Watson highlighted the Electoral Commission will be leading the way in order to find the best ways to modernise the system and ‘make it more reflective of the wider society’.

The 2014-2016 election cycle presents a particularly busy and challenging phase for the Electoral Commission as well as the electoral administrators on the ground, not only due to the number but mainly the nature of the forthcoming elections. This cycle which opens with the European Parliament and local elections in May this year and ends in 2016 with the elections for the devolved bodies, local authorities, the London Mayor and the second round of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections also includes two of the most significant electoral events in the UK; the high profile 2015 general election and the Scottish Independence referendum which Watson characterised as the ‘most constitutionally significant event for the century so far’. Though the significance of these various elections depends on wider political factors, the successful delivery of all elections is not a matter of compromise. Watson continuously emphasised throughout her lecture the need to ensure that all elections are delivered successfully so as ‘confidence and effectiveness’ in the system is not undermined. The passage of timely and comprehensive legislation allows for the proper planning and successful delivery of the polls. To this end, she highlighted that the Independence referendum legislation which was in place well in advance should provide the model to follow for all future elections.

The focus of her lecture however, was on the most significant imminent change of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The timetable for implementation was the topic of heated debate in Parliament with the government preferring that the transition be completed at the end of 2015. For Watson there are two strong arguments for early implementation. First, the system of online registration which is not only easy and quick to use but mainly, it appeals to young unregistered voters, which one of the sections of the population that the Electoral Commission mostly wishes to target. Second, an invaluable tool such as the data matching process is already in place. That is,the register is being matched against the data of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as well as local databases to confirm the identity of each elector. A test of that process, known as the ‘confirmation process’, which was run a year ago, showed that three quarters of those in the current register were automatically transferred onto the new register. And though there will be still a substantial number of voters (around 10m) who would not be registered, the data matching process provides election registration officers with the information and skills they need to identify the groups of people in their local area who are unregistered and develop plans to effectively target those groups.

The successful implementation of the transition to IER however, depends on a number of factors. Watson emphasised the important role that the Electoral Commission has to play in the process. Their work develops into three different levels. First, the Electoral Commission will monitor the process and collect data about the registers at various points including the general election of 2015 and evaluate the risks of an early transition. This will allow the identification of those electors who have not been confirmed or registered individually and those who at the end of the transition would be disenfranchised. She noted that this is of vital significance as it allows for the identification of variations at the local level and thus, a more effective planning and targeting especially in the light of the 2016 local elections. Most importantly, if the data analysis shows that too many voters would be disenfranchised then recommending early implementation would be highly unlikely. Second, the Electoral Commission will run a mass media campaign to raise public awareness. The main aim of the media campaign will be to encourage people to register complementing the work that election administrators will be doing on the ground. Finally, the Electoral Commission is building upon the findings of the data matching process in order to increase registration rates especially amongst those electors who are not likely to be automatically confirmed. To this end, Watson said that they are working with a range of partner organisations with good links togroups of people who are less likely to register, such as young adults and students, ethnic minority communities and mobile population, in order to pass a clear message to them about how to register.

One of the most interesting points of the lecture was her referenceto the practical issue of public engagement and participation and the implications of low turnout. While acknowledging the fact that encouraging political participation and increasing voting turnout are not areas of the Electoral Commission’s direct responsibility, Watson emphasised that the Electoral Commission cannot ‘sit on the sidelines’. Indeed, the Commission has an important twofold role to play; first, by supporting organisations who work towards these directions and second, by looking at the mechanics of the electoral system and their impact on turnout. The UK is in need of a more up-to-date and comprehensive strategy for bringing voting methods into the modern era. The role of the Electoral Commission should be to explore new areas and advise on the options for change. Online registration was a significant but limited step forward. The main aim should be to bring the electoral system into the modern world by giving people the opportunity to engage with it in the same way that they engage with everything else in their lives. To this end, Watson said that the Electoral Commissionplans to look at a variety of options including the electors’ ability to register to vote on the day of the election, touse any polling station in their constituency, the introduction of advance voting or even the ‘radical’ option of e-voting. Finding the right balance between security and accessibility of the system would be a major challenge. The Electoral Commission should not be working in isolation. This is an area where politicians and political parties should take responsibility and lead the debate about democratic participation. Addressing the issue of low turnout and enfranchising the younger generation requires political will and consensus. The Electoral Commission can lead the way; it is up to politicians and political parties to rise to the occasion.

Watch the video of Jenny Watson’s talk


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