How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

Today, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. The report touches on a variety of areas in relation to the conduct of referendums, including the role of referendums, the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns and cyber security. PACAC’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings, which they hope that the government will take heed of so that the country is ready for any future referendums.

Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published its latest report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. With Holyrood demanding a new Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK’s democratic system, with major implications for our system, which is based on representative democracy. PACAC’s report highlights the importance of clarity in relation to the role and purpose of referendums, and ensuring that referendums are conducted fairly and effectively.

PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. PACAC also argues, however, that referendums are less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a ‘bluff call’ referendum when, as last June, the referendum is used by the government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. As well as a clear question, the outcome in either case must also be clear. That means there should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want, as in the EU referendum.

PACAC considered four other areas in relation to the conduct of referendums: the fairness of the so-called ‘purdah’ period; the administration of the referendum; the role of the civil service during a referendum campaign; and cyber security.

On purdah, the government claimed at the time that the purdah provisions would impair the functioning of government. However, these provisions were of critical importance to the fair conduct of the referendum. The purdah provisions should be strengthened and clarified for future referendums and PACAC supports the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums. Additionally, PACAC asserts that the purdah restrictions should be updated to reflect the digital age, and extended to cover the full ten weeks of the referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

With regard to the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that, while not without some faults, the EU referendum was on the whole run well.  PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.

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The US voter registration system is flawed but election officials are working to address the issues

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Amid allegations of widespread voter fraud from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the American public has turned its gaze to the maintenance of voter registration lists. John Lindback and Mary Stegmaier provide an overview of the challenges posed by the US’s decentralized voter registration system, and discuss reforms that are already underway to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.

Officials who administer elections in the United States find themselves playing defence this year. In recent months, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has frequently charged that the American elections system is rigged against him. While Trump has offered no concrete evidence of systemic fraud, his repeated claims have created a perception problem. US elections officials have responded by emphasizing that studies do not support his allegations, and by citing the decentralised elections system among the 50 states and the multiple safeguards against hacking voting machines.  But, elections officials will acknowledge that one part of the system – voter registration – is flawed.

The American elections system differs from many other democracies in ways that make maintaining accurate voter registration lists a challenge. The US lacks a tool that most other countries use to determine voter eligibility – a centralised, national registry of citizens. Many countries use their national registries as the basis for voter lists at each voting precinct, which means that citizens are automatically registered to vote. When voters show up at their precinct polling station, they present their national ID card, and if this matches, they are issued the ballot. In contrast, the US has no national registry of American citizens nor is there a universally issued national identification card. Instead, to be eligible to vote, Americans must first take the initiative to register with their state and provide the basic identifying information necessary to determine where they are entitled to cast a ballot. Each state and the District of Columbia maintain its own voter registration rolls – a decentralised system that contrasts with the centralised system used in other countries.  Further, because election law in the US is largely made at the state level, the states vary in their voter ID requirements and registration deadlines. For this election, 10 states and the District of Columbia will allow people to register to vote on Election Day; the rest maintain deadlines that range from a few days to a full month in advance of the election.

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