Individual electoral registration (IER) has been a huge project, requiring co-ordination between the Cabinet Office, Government Digital Service, Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers in local authorities. On January 25 representatives from these four bodies discussed the challenges they faced and how the project is being brought to a successful conclusion at a Constitution Unit seminar. Roberta Damiani and Laëtitia Nakache offer an overview.
Individual electoral registration (IER) has brought about a significant change in how British electors register to vote. The emphasis is on the term ‘individual’. Previously, one person in every household was responsible for registering everyone who lived at that address; now, with IER, each person is required to register individually. Designing and implementing such a system was a challenge, not only from a human point of view but also from a technological one, as it required a huge amount of data to be digitised and processed. But it also offers exciting opportunities to make citizens more engaged in the democratic process. This blog highlights the key issues debated at an event about IER hosted by The Constitution Unit on 25 January and chaired by Dr Alan Renwick.
In the third of ourseries of postsadapted from presentations at the Unit’s20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.
Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.
Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.
Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995
Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.
Seasoned Returning Officer Barry Quirk reflects on managing elections in the UK and the logistics of running ‘one of the most administratively cumbersome processes that local councils have to complete’.
Today’s election will be the 22nd election I have managed as a Returning Officer. This includes local elections, London-wide elections, European elections, various referenda as well as four previous UK-wide parliamentary general elections. And each different election presents new challenges of management and administration. Running elections are a professional privilege; it connects public servants with the pulse of our representative democracy – whether that is at the local or national level.
The running of elections requires acute attention to detail, and very close managerial oversight and control. In many ways this is the antithesis of why people become local authority chief executives. They tend to have strong strategic skills and broad approaches to management leadership. But as returning officers they need to avoid examining both the wood and the trees; in elections they are staring at the bark! This is because elections are about focussing on detail, detail, detail. You need to focus on how ballot papers are to be printed, folded and handed to electors; and you need to prepare in astonishing detail as to the precise way in which votes are to be counted and aggregated.
Chief Executive of The Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the practicalities of running a national election, and how this general election differs from 2010.
The huge task of delivering the range of different polls taking place on 7 May – parts of England will see the highest level of combination of polls since 1979 – is well under way and some key milestones have been passed with the publication of the notices of election at the end of March and the close of nominations on 9 April. Returning Officers and electoral administrators came into this year’s election cycle with a solid foundation. Nearly nine in ten voters we talked to said the elections in May last year were well run. This shows that the hard work of elections teams across the country is continuing to inspire public confidence. It’s a great start, but it doesn’t mean any of us is tempted to be complacent.
What can we expect from next month’s elections? UK general elections bring their own unique challenges – and this one is already different from May 2010.
The level of interest is, of course, likely to be greater than at any other UK-wide elections since 2010, so we’re expecting a higher turnout. The Scottish Independence Referendum showed all the challenges that come with high turnout – but also how those challenges can be successfully managed. For example, higher turnout means more voters at polling stations. After the experience of 2010, where long queues at 10pm resulted is some voters being turned away, we worked with the UK Government and Parliament to ensure that the law was changed. This May, voters can be issued with a ballot paper if they are in a queue at their polling station at close of poll.