Holyrood speaks to Andy O’Neill, head of office with the Electoral Commission in Scotland, in the run-up to the council elections
With just over a week until the polls open, it is not only political parties waiting with baited breath to hear the outcome of 3 May’s ballot.
In 2007, the results process was besieged with delays and saw some 140,000 voting papers rejected. An inquiry into the fiasco, headed by independent expert Ron Gould, said Scotland’s voters had been “treated as an afterthought” throughout the planning and organisation of the elections and a number of recommendations were made to stop such problems re-occurring.
Gould found strong evidence that combining the Scottish parliamentary ballot papers on one sheet was primarily responsible for the high levels of rejected slips.
Gould, formerly Canada’s assistant chief electoral officer, said that in the planning process, the Scotland Office and the then Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Government were frequently focused on “partisan political interests”. At the time, he said: “Changes were introduced with the expectation that they would simply fall into place. However, there was no effective planning process connecting legislative and operational timescales. We recommend that those involved in future elections consider voters’ interests above all considerations.”
Just some of the key recommendations included the appointment of a chief returning officer for Scotland, separate days for parliament and local elections, separate ballot papers, no overnight counting if polls continue to close at 10pm and electronic counting to be properly incorporated. 2007’s local government election was the first to use the single transferable vote system (STV).
However, this year, it is hoped the process will be much smoother. The Electoral Commission is an independent body that regulates party and election finances and sets standards for well-run elections. In Scotland, the Commission’s remit includes elections to the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and European Parliament. Responsibility for Scottish local government elections is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
O’Neill says: “One of our main roles is we advise. We don’t run elections, which a lot of people assume, but we advise those who do, which is basically the returning officers. We produce guidance for returning officers to assist them in delivering the elections in the interest of the voter. We provide guidance to candidates and agents, and we are a regulator for both parties and candidates at election time and returning officers and electoral registration officers. We provide advice to the public, candidates, agents, Scottish and UK Governments, anyone who has an interest in electoral matters. We also run public awareness campaigns at a national level.
“There is a legacy from 2007 but we and others have spent a lot of time trying to ensure that the administrative processes are better now and one of the key issues was to avoid the fragmentation that was seen then. The Gould Report would have blamed someone if it could have found one individual. Gould suggested a chief electoral officer for Scotland but didn’t put the flesh on the bones. After a lot of consultation we came up with the idea of an electoral management board with an elections convener and the returning officers took that up on an interim basis in 2009. In 2011, the Scottish Government legislated to create a statutory basis for the electoral management board and Mary Pitcaithly is election convener with the power of direction.
“Another main thing that went wrong in 2007 was bad form design in terms of the ballot paper. The ballot paper caused a problem. We have spent a lot of time post-2007 developing good design guidance for ballot papers. We produced guidance for returning officers and civil servants, which gives good design advice and suggests that you go out and test the ballot paper before you use it, which you would think people do but often they don’t. Fortunately on 3 May last year,the Scottish Government tested the ballot paper we will be using this year so we have evidence to say it does work.
“We are also spending a lot of time ensuring people know how to fill it in correctly. The elections convener has directed that the timing of counts, on the basis of e-counting, is best done during the day and that is happening. We are spending a lot of time working on public awareness raising, which we’ve researched to ensure it works so people can vote with confidence on 3 May or on their kitchen table if they are using a postal vote.”
The Electoral Commission is also working to reach out to voters who might slip under the radar. Concerns have been raised that due to this election being a stand-alone affair, turnout might drop. Using social media such as networking site Facebook has been vital.
O’Neill adds: “Back in 2010 we teamed up with Facebook for the UK parliamentary election and we got a lot of hits on our website. Basically for one day when you logged into Facebook a popup appeared asking if you were registered to vote and directed the user to our website. We will be spending a lot of time until 3 May explaining how to fill in the form. Things like Facebook and the Internet tend to be more attuned to younger voters but younger voters are a group that have larger numbers of non-registered people.
“We have found that those who are not registered tend to be young people, people in the private rented sector and people who have moved house in the past 12 months. Last year some of our research found that if you had moved house since 1 December, by April only 14 per cent of people will have re-registered at their new address. Moving house is a big factor in registration and also age. We target a lot of our efforts on registration. However, the voting message on how to fill out an STV form is for everyone. We have a viral on the internet at the moment that people can share and there’s an animation that explains how to vote.
“It being a decoupled election makes a difference in the sense that from a public awareness point of view it is easier to explain how to fill in an STV ballot paper. In 2007 you were using both Xs and numbers and it was very difficult. At least there’s only one message to get out there. It is the second time this system has been used, not counting by-elections, so it should be standing on its own two feet. We are working with lots of others to get the message out to people.”
Over the past 20 months, the e-counting system that will collate the results has undergone a rigorous testing programme, including a large scale bulk test last summer. The system complies with the recommendations made by the Gould Report. Owing to the STV system, it would take up to three days to count all of Scotland’s votes by hand. The Scottish Government says using e-counting means the count takes place in mere hours, while offering enhanced levels of information and transparency during the count itself, as well as allowing the publication of more meaningful post-election data.