The Electoral Commission and the EU referendum


The Electoral Commission is entrusted with delivering and regulating the EU referendum. Andrew Scallan CBE, the Commission’s Director of Electoral Administration and Deputy Chief Counting Officer for the referendum, discusses this role, lessons learned from previous referendums and new challenges which may arise this time.

On 20 February 2016 the Prime Minister announced his proposal for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union to be held on 23 June this year. It was the date that everyone was waiting for, not least the Electoral Commission, which is entrusted with delivering and regulating the EU referendum. When the European Union Referendum Act received royal assent in December 2015, we reported to the UK parliament that our arrangements for the delivery of a well-run referendum were progressing well, and by the time of the Prime Minister’s announcement we were in a position to report that arrangements were well-advanced.

The Electoral Commission’s role

The Electoral Commission has specific responsibilities and functions in relation to the delivery and regulation of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). One of our responsibilities under PPERA is to advise parliament on the intelligibility of the proposed referendum question. We were pleased when our recommendation to revise the original question in line with the findings from our research with voters was quickly accepted by the government and parliament. Our other responsibilities include:

  • The Chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, as Chief Counting Officer, being responsible for certifying the outcome of the referendum
  • Registering organisations or individuals who want to campaign in the referendum
  • Considering and approving applications for designation as the lead campaign group for each referendum outcome
  • Making grant payments to the approved designated organisations
  • Monitoring spending on referendum campaigning, in line with the referendum spending limits
  • Providing advice and guidance on the rules to campaigners
  • Monitoring and securing compliance with campaign donation, loan and spending controls
  • Monitoring spending by Counting Officers
  • Reporting on the administration of the referendum and referendum campaign regulation

Our focus is on voters and on putting their interests first and that underpins everything we do. Referendums should be administered in a way that engenders confidence, is credible, transparent, and open to scrutiny.

Campaigning at the referendum

Under the PPERA, as amended by the European Union Referendum Act (the Act), the Commission is responsible for registering campaigners and regulating their spending and donations. Neither Jenny or I are involved in those decisions, including the designation of lead campaign groups. There are rules that referendum campaigners must follow in the run-up to the referendum. The referendum period is when the rules and spending limits apply and it starts on 15 April 2016 and ends on polling day, 23 June 2016.

Anyone can spend up to £10,000 on campaigning during the referendum period. Anyone intending to spend more than £10,000 must register with us to become a ‘registered campaigner’. Only certain types of individuals or organisations can register as campaigners, primarily individuals or organisations registered and carrying out business in the UK. The full list of eligible individuals or organisations can be found on page seven of our campaigning and registering for the EU referendum guidance. The full register of referendum campaigners is here.

Registered campaigners must report donations received and loans over £7,500 on certain deadline dates before the poll. This helps to provide transparency for voters. Registered campaigners that spend more than £10,000 during the referendum period must report their campaign spending to us after the referendum. The deadline for registered campaigners that have spent £250,000 or under to submit campaign spending returns is 23 September 2016. The deadline for registered campaigners that have spent over £250,000 to submit campaign spending returns is 23 December 2016. The Commission will publish all spending returns as well as donation and loan reports to ensure transparency of campaign funding and spending for voters. It has published guidance explaining the rules campaigners must follow and provides an advice service if campaigners need further advice.

Organisation of the poll

The Chair of the Commission, Jenny Watson, is the Chief Counting Officer (CCO) for the referendum and will certify the outcome of the referendum. Jenny has appointed me as the Deputy Chief Counting Officer and we work with the Regional Counting Officers (RCOs) for the nine electoral regions in England and the RCOs for Scotland and Wales. Gibraltar is included in the South West region for the administration of the referendum. Northern Ireland is treated as one voting area. The RCOs coordinate the work of the Counting Officers (COs) in all the local authorities in their region. Votes will be counted at local authority level in England, Scotland and Wales, in Northern Ireland as a whole, and Gibraltar. The RCOs will collate the local totals into a regional total. The Chief Counting Officer will declare the result for the whole of the UK.

Our role in the referendum is significantly different from our role at elections where responsibility for the conduct of elections is held by statutory office holders in local authorities and the Commission gives advice and guidance and sets standards for the office holders. As CCO, Jenny has the power to direct RCOs and COs and has consulted widely on the use of this power. Her approach is to deliver by consensus where possible, by guidance where needed and by directions, where appropriate, and following consultation. The CCO chose to limit the use of directions to matters in which she considered consistency was essential in order to achieve the overall objective of ensuring confidence in the result, based on an accessible, consistent and efficient electoral process operated to the highest standards of integrity. The directions cover issues such as staffing levels in polling stations, the timing of the issue of poll cards and postal votes, and the timing and method of counting the votes.

Reflecting on the lessons from other referendums

The most recent memory of a referendum in the UK is of course that on Scottish independence in 2014. There had also been referendums on the UK parliamentary voting system and on further powers for the National Assembly for Wales, both held in 2011. We learnt lessons from each of those referendums and, during the passage of the legislation, we briefed parliament to ensure that these were reflected in the final rules for the EU referendum. We are pleased that the government incorporated many of our recommendations.

Implementation of these changes put us in a better position for delivering the referendum than in 2011. One of the main issues with both referendums held that year was that the legislation received royal assent less than three months before polling day. Such late confirmation that the referendum would actually take place caused difficulties for those planning to campaign and for those who were required to deliver the referendums. Throughout the passage of the bill for the EU referendum we were clear that campaigners and electoral administrators need time to prepare themselves properly to follow the detailed rules that are set by parliament.

Another recommendation we found support for early on in the legislative process concerned the combining of the referendum with scheduled elections. In our report on the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, we said that holding a poll on such an important constitutional issue on a separate day from other elections worked well. It gave voters space to engage fully with the referendum issues, and helped both campaigners and electoral administrators plan their activities more effectively. We recommended that for other high-profile issues likely to attract cross-party campaigning, such as the EU referendum, any referendum should be held on a separate day to other polls. We were therefore pleased that that the EU Referendum Bill was amended to state that the EU referendum could not be held on the same day as other scheduled polls in May 2016 and May 2017 and that there is no legislation to allow for combined polls on  23 June.

New challenges which arise this time

On 2 March 2016, we had confirmation about the date of the referendum, the length of the referendum period when most of the regulatory controls apply including limits on spending, approval of our ability to designate and the period of time in which we would have to do this. Managing an unknown date of the referendum was one of the biggest risks to delivering the poll in a way that is fair, secure and well-organised. To mitigate the risks we put in place robust plans that could be applied to different date scenarios. As time went on we could rule out certain scenarios and parliament’s decision to rule out combining the referendums with other polls was significant as it meant that we could proceed on the assumption of a stand-alone poll.

The Commission is well aware of the high level of scrutiny we will receive in discharging all of our responsibilities over the coming weeks. While the Commission’s previous experience of delivering referendums provides us with a solid foundation for carrying out our duties for the EU referendum, it will be a challenge to do so within the context of intense political and media interest.

We will also be scrutinising our own conduct up to and beyond the announcement of the result, as our attention will then turn to reporting on the administration of the referendum and on campaigning at the poll. This work is particularly important in informing policy and approaches for future referendums, so we carry the principles of transparency and putting the voter first throughout the process.

About the author

Andrew Scallan CBE is Director of Electoral Administration at the Electoral Commission and Deputy Chief Counting Officer for the EU referendum.

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