With an election and a referendum to be held on the same day, can these polls avoid the mistakes of 2007?
After the electoral debacle of 2007, Scotland heads to the polls next month for another combined vote. This time the Holyrood election is set to coincide with a referendum on electoral reform. So can there be confidence that history will not repeat itself?
The 2007 experience was a bruising one for Scottish democracy. More than 140,000 were spoiled in the Scottish Parliament election, with tens of thousands more rejected for the local government poll. The decision to run both elections – each under different electoral systems – on the same day was described as “deeply mistaken” by First Minister Alex Salmond and the outcome, “totally unacceptable in a democratic society”. A report into the fiasco by Ron Gould judged that the voter was “treated as an afterthought”.
To avoid a recurrence of these events, the Scottish and local government elections have been ‘decoupled’, in line with Gould’s recommendation. Four years on, however, this election will be held alongside a UKwide referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote. The decision by the UK Government to combine the polls has been slammed by opposition parties north of the border. But the woman charged with directing the referendum is confident that the events of 5 May 2011 will be very different to those of 3 May 2007.
“For us we’re very much seeing this as elections and referendums and the Scottish Parliament election has really been centre stage of the plan as well as the referendum,” says Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission and Chief Counting Officer for the AV Referendum.
“I would say that in terms of the planning and the electoral monitoring that we’re doing, I do have confidence that we’re well on track.
I’m never going to say that there might not be problems. There might be things that we haven’t thought of, like there could be a sudden snowstorm. But I think we’re well on track and I am confident that we’re going to do a good job.” The conditions heading into this election are vastly different from the last Holyrood poll, Watson argues.
“Let’s take us back to the 2007 elections for a moment. There’s an enormous amount that has changed since then,” she says.
This time around, voters will receive three different ballot papers: one for the Holyrood constituency vote; one for the Holyrood regional vote; and one for the referendum.
Each will be colour-coded – lilac, peach and grey respectively – and allocated three separate ballot boxes. This contrasts with 2007 where the constituency and regional vote appeared on one paper, adding to voter confusion. And unlike those elections, in which people were expected to use both crosses and numbers in the first past the post and single transferable vote systems, each ballot paper will now simply require an X. What’s more, on the regional paper, parties will no longer get away with using slogans like the famous ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ before their party name.
“I think when you look back at 2007 there are so many things that seem to come together to create that kind of situation,” says the Chief Counting Officer. “We’ve worked very, very hard not just in the last six months but since 2007 to make sure that all of those issues have been addressed.” Part of this preparation has been ‘voter testing’ ballot papers and developing guidance to ensure the confusion of 2007 would not be repeated. The referendum ballot paper has been developed using these guidelines and the question – “At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?” – has been tested on voters by the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Parliament ballot papers have also been developed by the Scotland Office in accordance with this guidance, but – in spite of the commission’s advice – not trialled on voters.
“What they tell us is that they have developed the ballot paper along the lines of our guidance but it hasn’t been tested directly with voters. So as far as our responsibility goes, we’re clear about what we’ve done and then it’s for the Scotland Office to assure themselves that they can be completely confident about the election ballot paper,” Watson reports.
Another failing of the last Holyrood elections, highlighted by Gould was a “fragmentation” of responsibility. The new Electoral Management Board is now providing this much needed leadership, Watson believes.
To further avoid any disruption to the Holyrood poll, Watson has ordered when the count for the referendum can begin.
“My direction about the timing of the count for the referendum is that it will take place at 4pm on the Friday after polling day. And that’s specifically to make sure that the count can take place for Holyrood well before that so that people who are standing for election and voters who have voted will know who will represent them in Parliament and potentially, who will form the Government. So that’s a very practical example of how we’re putting the election centre stage in planning,” she says.
To get this information to those who matter most – the voters – the commission is launching an information campaign on 1 April. Booklets with factual information about the election and the referendum will arrive in households. This will be accompanied by TV, radio and online advertising, while information on the arguments will be distributed by the Yes and No campaigns.
With all of these pieces in place, Watson is confident that she will oversee a successful poll that maintains faith in the democratic process.