Elections – onwards and upwards

Peter-Wardle

Outgoing Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the delivery of this year’s general election and considers what further improvements can be made.

This blog coincides with the launch of the Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the May 7 elections.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the General Election under the headline ‘Expect the unexpected’. It wasn’t really the outcome I was talking about – but if readers want to credit me with clairvoyance on that front, that’s fine!

This was my third General Election as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission – and after each one, we reflect on what happened, and what further improvements can be made.

We ask voters how it was for them – and we can take a good deal of satisfaction and pride in the fact that trust and confidence in our electoral system is so high. This year, nine in ten people told us they thought the elections in May were well-run. This is a real tribute to the team effort that is put in by Returning Officers and their staff, local police forces, and of course campaigners, to make sure the elections run as smoothly as possible for voters.

But the election world never stands still – there are major polls across the UK in May 2016, and a UK-wide referendum due before the end of 2017. In our report on the administration of the 7 May elections, we’ve made a number of recommendations that would further improve voters’ experience and sustain trust in our democracy.

Online electoral registration

Since online registration first started last year, millions of online applications have been submitted. Voters in England, Scotland and Wales find online registration very convenient – we’re now calling for the system to be extended to voters in Northern Ireland as well.

And for all voters, we’re recommending that the service needs to be expanded to allow people to check online whether they’re in fact already registered to vote – that will reduce the number of ‘duplicate’ applications where people who aren’t sure are sending in an application, just to be certain they can vote.

Overseas voters

Some overseas voters reported they didn’t receive their postal vote soon enough to send it back in time for the close of poll. And some didn’t receive their postal vote at all. We’re recommending that not only must all Returning Officers (ROs) ensure that postal ballot packs go out with the correct postage to arrive quickly with overseas voters (a fairly obvious point); but also that ROs should be able to use international business reply services that allow overseas voters to return their votes free of charge. Following on from this, the UK Government should commit to funding ROs to provide this service.

We’ve also said that we will work with the Government and ROs to identify other practical steps which could be taken to further improve the voting process for overseas electors.

ID at polling stations

We said last year, after a significant review, that there is no evidence that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK, and most people say they see voting in general as safe from fraud. Nevertheless, our research has also consistently identified an underlying level of concern about fraud, and even at the May 2015 elections, a third of people said they thought fraud took place.

In our report we remind readers that we have already recommended that the UK Government should commit to bringing in a requirement for voters at polling stations in England, Scotland and Wales to show proof of their identity – as in Northern Ireland – in time for the 2019 elections. We are due to publish proposals by the end of this year, for how this would work in practice.

This was my final set of major polls as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission after more than ten years in the role. The UK has achieved a great deal in the last decade, including the introduction of individual voter registration; and the continuing development of a system of transparency in party and election finance which, despite some failings, is outstanding by international standards. I’m very grateful to those across the elections community, and to a wide range of people and organisations with a commitment to elections and democracy – not least the Constitution Unit and its many supporters – for their constant support.

Click here to read the full Electoral Commission report.

About the Author

Peter Wardle is Chief Executive of The Electoral Commission.

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