Election Universe

How Scotland plans to make its elections even better

How Scotland plans to make its elections even better
July 08 2014, 14:21

Scotland has looked carefully at its electoral system to see how it could be improved.

Its government published a consultation document in April. Called ‘Scotland’s Electoral Future – Delivering improvements in participation and administration’, it examines how the country can encourage wider participation in elections – and improve the quality of its democracy.

The suggestions range from technical changes in electoral legislation to alternative voting methods. They’re based on the findings of an Electoral Commission report on Scotland’s last local government elections of 2012, where votes cast for 1,223 councilors in 253 wards. The report said that they were well-run and voter satisfaction levels were high. It also outlined 16 recommendations on how to make Scottish elections even better (you’ll read about the main ones below). And the Scottish Government is particularly keen on exploring ways to improve its elections by increasing voter participation. Because turnout seems to be falling.

Increasing voter turnout

Turnout in the 2012 local government elections was 39.8% (14% lower than 2007), following their de-coupling from the parliamentary elections.

In fact, voter turnout has been on the decline throughout the developed world. This is not something unique to Scotland. And despite the drop, the reasons to de-couple were positive. Voters were confused and it was also though it weakened local government’s mandate or at least weakened voter interest in local issues.

To get turnout up, the following suggestions have been made:

1.     Alternative voting methods

Universal postal voting

Here, you’d close polling stations, everyone would vote by post and votes would be counted as normal on election day. Pilot schemes in the UK appear to have increased turnout. Research, however, has shown that people want to retain the right to vote at polling stations, so postal voting should perhaps be an addition, not a replacement.

At the 2010 UK parliamentary elections, postal voting packs were sent to 6.9 million electors (15% of the total). 5.8 million were returned, meaning postal turnout was 83%, compared to 63% of people who could only vote at their polling station. Election Commission data shows that postal voters are consistently more satisfied with and confident in the process.

Having said that, there are concerns with secrecy and, as has been seen in the UK, postal voting is open to abuse.

Electronic voting machines (EVMs)

This is where voters use touchscreen voting machine at polling stations and votes are counted accurately and quickly. The Scottish report focuses on Brazil as an example of a country that has employed EVMs. They note how, to eliminate fraud, the Brazilian EVM incorporates voter identification, secure voting and tallying into one process – and how the country’s political parties have access to the software before the election, for auditing. The report acknowledges there are security concerns with electronic voting (and so there should be with every method) but notes that no case of fraud has ever arisen in Brazil.

Internet voting

From any Internet-connected device, including those provided at polling stations. Estonia currently offers this option to its entire electorate.

Telephone voting

From landlines or mobiles. No paper ballots. No need for polling stations. However, security and privacy are perceived to be issues.

2.     Engaging young people

Scottish schools currently employ a variety of methods to promote political literacy. And the Scottish Government wants voting age to be reduced to 16 from 18 to prevent 16 and 17-year-olds from becoming disengaged from the process. A vote for independence in the referendum on 18 September 2014 would see electoral powers transferred to Scottish Parliament and the voting age would probably be reduced.

3.     Reaching those disinclined to vote

The Electoral Commission proposes to target public information campaigns at students, overseas voters and armed forces, for example.

4.     Making elections fairer for all candidates

Does the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot paper affect their performance? Options include alphabetical listing (system at present), random ordering and ordering according to party. Two further ways of doing it are to have ordering determined by public ballot or by random rotation, where different ballots feature different orders.

5.     Improving the voting process

Emergency proxy voting

The Scottish government has provided legislation to extend emergency proxy voting provisions to those who are unable to visit the polling station or unable to apply to vote by post due to unforeseen circumstances.

Postal votes

4% of the 2012 elections postal votes were invalid. Part of the problem is that votes are marked invalid if some supplementary information is missing. While it’s important to check voters’ identities, the Electoral Commission doesn’t want to lose votes because of mistakes. So they’d like returning officers to be able to request an additional signature and provide feedback. The government has agreed to introduce relevant legislation in time for 2017.

6.     Strengthening electoral management

The Electoral Commission recommends that the Electoral Management Board (EMB) is in charge of providing the ‘national result’ and notes that it could take responsibility for collating and providing the data in an electronic election.

What next?

Because this was a consultation, readers were invited to give their answers to a series of 12 questions on the above topics. Responses are due by 11 July, 2014. After that, the government will analyse and consider all responses – and issue a report which will be published on http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/Recent

We commend the Scottish Government for taking affirmative action to improve its democratic process. More governments should be following its approach. Westminster would do well to follow suit. It has made a start and now needs to move forward beyond a parliamentary committee and put together an actionable plan.

Photo: Paul Buckingham – From geograph.org.uk