Is there an app for that? Voter information in the event of a snap election

juxZ1M58_400x400.jpg.pngDigital technology has transformed the way we access information and interact with services. Democratic services have not kept up, risking a situation where democracy is seen as out of date. Joe Mitchell argues that it’s time to dream big: the UK has an opportunity to create a new digital-first office of civic education and democratic information, to restore trust and grow public understanding of our democracy.

What’s the biggest threat to democracy in the UK? Interference by foreign powers? Disinformation? Fake news? Micro-targeting of voters on social media? Or is it more simple than that? Is itt is just that engaging in the democratic process no longer fits with people’s lives? 

Digital technology has transformed the way we live. It has changed our expectations of how we access information, how we communicate, how we bank, shop or access government services. It should not surprise us then, to learn that people expect to access information on the democratic process digitally. For example, Google News Trends published the top ten searches on Google UK on the day of the 2015 general election; these all related to the election. The most popular question was ‘who should I vote for’ — a genuinely complex question, but the following searches were straightforward: variations on the theme of ‘who are the candidates’ and ‘where do I vote’. 

Worryingly, the democratic process has been left behind by digital transformation. A gulf has emerged between the way we live our lives now and the way we participate in democracy: it can feel like something from a bygone age. Notices of elections are posted to a noticeboard in front of a council building and (not even in all cases) uploaded as a PDF to a webpage buried in a council website somewhere. While the digital register-to-vote service is welcome, no state institution has taken responsibility for meeting the digital demand for even the most basic information: when are elections happening, who is standing, what was the result? How to vote is covered by the Electoral Commission’s website, but with research on voter ID showing that only 8% of voters know the voting rules, clearly not enough is being done.  Continue reading

If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?

JennyH.picture.jpgA snap election looks highly likely in the coming months. The UK’s rules for election campaigns have widely been branded as ‘not fit for purpose’, yet they will not be changed in time for an early poll. The Constitution Unit therefore convened a seminar to examine what else can be done. Jenny Holloway summarises the discussion.

The Constitution Unit held a seminar on 12 September asking ‘If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?’ Focusing on ways both to tackle misinformation and to promote greater availability of good information, the event brought together four leading authorities in their respective fields: Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4; Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority; Joe Mitchell, director of Democracy Club; and Will Moy, Chief Executive of Full Fact. It drew on many of the themes addressed in the Unit’s March 2019 report Doing Democracy Better, co-authored by Alan Renwick and Michela Palese. Given that changes to the legislative framework for election campaigns will not happen before a snap election, it focused particularly on strategies for improving the campaign within existing rules.

Dorothy Byrne

Building on her recent McTaggart Lecture, Dorothy Byrne argued that politicians and journalists both have crucial roles to play in improving the state of democracy and increasing public trust in politics. Politicians must be willing to submit themselves to scrutiny through the media. Broadcasters have a responsibility to actively call out lies and untruthful statements made by politicians. Continue reading

Voter ID at British polling stations: learning the right lessons from Northern Ireland

7sdwzdrq.1368719121Asking voters to produce a form of identification before voting will be piloted in five English council areas this May. The move represents part of the government’s response to a series of recent recommendations for measures to safeguard the electoral process from fraud. While the pilots will provide important opportunities for policy-learning, Stuart Wilks-Heeg argues that much can already be gleaned from the experience of Northern Ireland, where voter ID requirements were first introduced in 1985.

On 3 May 2018, voters at polling stations in five English council districts (Bromley, Gosport, Slough, Watford, and Woking) will be asked for proof of identity. These voter ID pilots are central to the current UK government’s commitment to follow through on recommendations made in electoral fraud reviews carried out by both the UK Electoral Commission and by Eric Pickles in his role as Anti-Corruption Champion.

A solution in search of a problem?

Official concern about the security of the ballot has been driven by a small number of high-profile cases of fraud, most recently in Tower Hamlets in 2014. There is no evidence of widespread voter impersonation at polling stations. In fact, cases of ‘personation’, as the offence is termed in UK electoral law, are exceptionally rare. A total of 146 allegations of personation at polling stations were reported to UK police forces from 2010–16, a period that included two general elections and the EU referendum, each of which saw some 30 million votes cast. All but a handful of these 146 allegations resulted in no further action, generally because there was no evidence that an offence had been committed. Over the same time period, only seven people were convicted as a result of investigations of personation at polling stations, five of whom were involved in a single case in Derby.

Given such evidence, academics have expressed concern that voter ID is a solution in search of a problem. Some opposition politicians and political campaigners have gone further, seeing it as a consciously partisan measure. Critics argue that lower-income voters are less likely to have valid ID and will be turned away from polling stations in large numbers, or simply deterred from going to vote at all. In this view, the real purpose of voter ID at polling stations is not to restore public confidence in the electoral process, but to emulate the ‘voter suppression’ methods long practised by Republican states against likely Democrat supporters in the USA. Continue reading

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’.

Continue reading

Video: Elected Mayors

Date and Time: Tuesday 22 May, 6pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

Jules Pipe

The London borough of Hackney has had an elected Mayor since 2002, when Jules Pipe was elected into office.  Mr Pipe argued that Hackney faced series issues at the time; crime rates were high, the council’s finances were in a poor state, and educational attainment was low.

Mr Pipe recognised that before changes could be made in the borough, changes would have to be made to the council itself.  His first priorities were to reintroduce good governance and financial competence.  In practice this meant improving the lines of communication within the council, developing a shared vision, and pursuing the best value for money for the borough.

The new Mayor set high standards for his team, bringing in experienced people and fostering a performance management culture.  Their aim was to improve the services that would benefit the whole community, focussing on projects such as building new schools, resurfacing roads and improving public amenities.

In his view, it remains vitally important to work with other bodies, such as the Police and the London Mayor, to achieve the best results for Hackney.  Mr Pipe’s long-term goal is to improve the reputation of Hackney, so as to encourage commercial investment.

Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis explained how he first became involved in the campaign for elected Mayors after being invited to speak at the Lunar Society in Birmingham last year.  In his view, the city lacked a coherent vision for the future; what it needed was a Mayor to fight for Birmingham’s interests.

According to Lord Adonis, a recent study has shown that only 16% of people think they know who the leader of their local council is – and half of those get it wrong.  In his view, having directly elected Mayors would raise the profile of local politics, and improve local council accountability.

Despite the largely negative response to elected Mayors in the recent referendums, Lord Adonis believes that all major cities could have elected Mayors within 15 to 20 years.  He argues that the introduction of elected Police Commissioners in November will help the case for elected Mayors, as they will have some of the powers of elected Mayors.

Note prepared by Jeremy Swan, intern on the Unit’s Special Advisers project.

What next for Elected Mayors? Localism Catch-22

Boris Johnson may have won the Mayoral race in London, however the rest of England didn’t take to a “Boris for every city”. Nine out of ten cities participating in the coalition’s referenda on directly elected mayors (May 3) rejected the idea; only Bristol backed the proposals.  The referenda were also overshadowed by poor turnout rates with an average of 28.8% across the country and only 24% in Bristol. Given that localism is one of the coalition’s main drives, what next for the government’s credentials in this area?

The proposed “Mayors Cabinet” will unlikely go ahead now, but the mayoral agenda will certainly not end here. Liverpool and Bristol will “flaunt” their mayors to influence national policy as London has done in the last decade[1]. The coalition will do likewise to save face and rejuvenate their localism strategy. Other cities therefore may find themselves wishing for mayors and they don’t have to wait on another national referendum. Let’s not forget that Liverpool, Salford, Doncaster and Leicester have all appointed mayors in the last year through local referenda or local council agreement. The “big-bang” reform the coalition hoped for hasn’t quite happened but change is still likely to creep along. One idea gaining traction is “metro mayors”, which would look after transport, planning and policing across city-regional travel-to-work areas (an idea Lord Adonis will discuss at a Constitution Unit seminar on May 22). [2]

The low turnout raises deeper questions on public enthusiasm for localism. With only 28.8% of people voting nationally, can the government carry localism forward? Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are due to be elected on 15 November, whose credibility will be questioned on a 10-20% turnout. Localism has good devolutionary intent but people need to feel involved. Citizens should have had a hand in shaping mayors’ roles before the referenda and we cannot be surprised that people voted against an office they did not call for with undefined powers, pay and job description.

Ultimately, the coalition has tried to provide the groundwork for a system few are yet interested in using and found themselves in a Catch-22 situation. How does one force localism from the top? To continue driving the localism agenda forward the government needs to gain this hard-face experience, and refocus on facilitating rather than imposing policy. Elected mayors may have a future yet, but it now lies in the hands of local communities rather than Westminster.