The Unsung Heroes? Election Administration in the Scottish Independence ReferendumBy Alistair Clark on 13 September 2014
For a few hours on 18th and 19th September 2014, a number of unsung heroes will have the future of both Scotland and the UK in their hands. These unsung heroes are not the voters, of which much has been and will be written. They are the electoral administrators, the thousands of people who ensure that voters can cast their votes in secret, make sure that these votes are counted transparently and a reliable result declared. Election administration is a crucially important factor in democracies, but one which is regularly overlooked by academic and commentators’ analyses. Although mostly behind the scenes of electoral politics, election administrators’ work is almost always high pressure. It involves large numbers of dedicated but part-time non-specialist election workers. It is also delivered to almost inevitably tight timescales. Nowhere will this be more true than across Scotland in the early hours of 19th September when electoral administrators will be under immense pressure not only from the political elite in Scotland and the UK, but also financial markets, to deliver a quick and accurate verdict on Scotland’s independence referendum.
Election administration is often overlooked in the study of electoral politics in advanced democracies. Yet, it is crucial to ensuring that every person eligible to vote is registered and has the ability to vote should they wish to do so. In many ways, electoral administrators are the ‘street level bureaucrats’ of elections, whose actions can make a difference to individuals’ experience at the polls and ultimately to confidence in electoral results. A number of difficulties in the past decade – most recently the election night queues in the 2010 general election and allegations of malpractice in the 2014 local elections in Tower Hamlets – have suggested that all has not necessarily been well in British election administration however. My own recently published research has pointed to variation in levels of performance among election administrators across Britain.
While worthy of much greater attention, the administration of General, European and local elections are nevertheless relatively routine contests. The Scottish independence referendum has introduced a range of additional challenges for election administrators. These have included the difficulty of agreeing what to put on the ballot paper. They have also included the unique challenge, in the UK, of extending the electoral register to include 16-17 year olds. On polling day, they will also have to include managing the high level of turnout expected in the aftermath of what has been an extraordinary campaign which has mobilised all sectors of Scottish society in a way seldom seen in recent decades. 97% of those eligible to do so have registered to vote, a total of 4.29 million voters. Predictions of turnout have been in the 80% plus range. Compare that with around 60% in general elections in Scotland and around 50% in Scottish parliament elections and the magnitude of the challenge becomes clear. The narrowness of the polls shows that both campaigns have a huge incentive to get their vote out. Postal votes have already been issued to voters.
This underlines the need for good management of the polling process in and around the referendum. We are already seeing reports and allegations of issues that electoral administrators are having to investigate. These have included reports of potential votes for sale, an illegal practice in all democracies, and a report by the Better Together campaign of polling cards sent in error to children, where the newspaper, Scotland on Sunday, used the somewhat provocative headline ‘Vote Rigging Fears’. Reporters and the campaigns should not get too carried away by this. There are almost always some such issues in all electoral processes. This is almost inevitable in such a complex process involving so many people. Allegations of electoral fraud and malpractice are typically overstated in the UK. Nevertheless, every allegation is of concern and they must be investigated thoroughly. What matters however is that there is no systematic bias skewing the result in one way or another. This would be a concern in any contest, but it matters even more in a tight contest. The referendum is expected to be very tight.
What are the prospects? Those with longish memories of Scottish electoral politics will remember the unhappy example of the 2007 elections where there was a vast increase in rejected ballot papers because of a change to the ballot paper used in the Scottish parliament elections. This was potentially a serious crisis had political actors chosen to make it so. It led to a sharp rise in the number of seats where the number of rejected ballots was greater than the winning candidate’s majority, from 2 of the 73 constituency seats in 1999 to 16 out of 73 in 2007. With only a one seat difference determining the winner between the two major parties, Labour and the SNP, this had considerable potential to undermine the legitimacy of the whole election. Incredibly, there were no challenges to the results. The Gould report into the 2007 debacle famously argued that ‘almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders’.
The process of running elections in Scotland has been transformed from 2007. Scotland now has an Electoral Management Board established by the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Act 2011. This gave the Board “the general function of co-ordinating the administration of Local Government elections in Scotland”. It also gave the EMB the function of putting the voter first and importantly, the power of direction over local authority returning officers, something which no body had previously had. Alongside the Electoral Commission, the EMB will play a large part in delivering the Referendum. The EMB’s Convenor is the Chief Counting Officer for the Referendum, and it has issued strong guidelines to ensure a problem free poll. These include directions on polling stations to try to avoid the dangers of queues building up, the need to have available enough ballot papers for the expected high turnout and directions regarding the dispatch of postal votes and vote verification and counting.
Since its inception, the EMB has overseen well-run elections in Scotland, notably the 2012 local government elections which used the complex single transferable vote, and the recent 2014 European elections. In the 2010 general election, when the EMB was acting in a ‘shadow’ capacity my research shows that Scottish unitary councils performed best in electoral administration across the whole of Great Britain. Of course, events on the day itself, and in the remaining days between now and the referendum, will be crucial. But these examples give confidence that Scotland will have a robust electoral process on referendum day which political elites can have confidence in.
What also matters is how the two campaigns deal with any difficulties that arise. Often electoral processes become highly contentious and the legitimacy of outcomes challenged when allegations are made of electoral irregularities. It is, of course, correct that the two campaigns should fight for every vote, and certainly to bring irregularities to the notice of returning officers. Yet, assuming any irregularities are not systematic, it is also incumbent on both campaigns to ensure that any allegations of mispractice are raised in such a way as to not call the result into question, particularly if the result is as tight as expected.
Alistair Clark is Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Newcastle and Trustee and Executive Member of the PSA. His latest article ‘Public Administration and the Integrity of the Electoral Process in British Elections’ is forthcoming in Public Administration.
Image: Coventry City Council CC BY-NC-ND