8. Who can register and vote (Q17 to Q22)
8.1 Chapter 3 of the consultation paper discussed a range of issues in relation to who may register and vote in Scottish Parliament and local authority elections in Scotland.
Extending the franchise (Q17, 18, 19)
8.2 At present, a person may vote in Scottish Parliament and local government elections if they are over 16 years old and are (i) a British citizen; OR (ii) a qualifying Commonwealth citizen; OR (iii) a citizen of the Irish Republic or European Union. Thus, some groups of overseas citizens have the right to vote in Scotland, while other groups (i.e. those who are not EU or Commonwealth citizens) are excluded from the franchise which some people consider to be discriminatory. As the Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Government power over the administration of Scottish elections, there is now an opportunity to change the existing franchise for Scottish elections.
8.3 The consultation paper discussed a proposal to extend the current franchise for Scottish Parliament and local government elections to include everyone who is legally resident in Scotland. There were three questions on this proposal.
Question 17: Do you agree that the franchise should be extended to include everyone legally resident in Scotland? [Yes / No]
Question 18: Do you have any views on how long someone should be resident in Scotland before they become eligible to vote?
Question 19: Do you have any other comments to make on this issue?
8.4 A total of 751 respondents answered the tick-box part of Question 17. Table 8.1 shows that there was general support among organisations (92%) and individuals (78%) for extending the franchise to everyone legally resident in Scotland.
Table 8.1: Q17 – Do you agree that the franchise should be extended to include everyone legally resident in Scotland?
8.5 Question 18 invited views on how long someone should be resident in Scotland before they become eligible to vote. This was an open question, with no tick-box. Question 19 asked for any other comments on the issue of extending the franchise. Some respondents commenting at Question 18 included an explanation of why they had suggested a particular length of residence, while others provided their explanation at Question 19. As there was a great deal of overlap between the issues raised at Question 18 and Question 19, the responses to these two questions have been analysed together.
8.6 A total of 613 respondents – 43 organisations and 570 individuals – commented at Question 18 and / or Question 19.
Views in favour of extending the franchise to all legal residents
8.7 Respondents supporting an extension of the franchise to all people who are legally resident in Scotland argued that decisions taken by government affect all residents; therefore, all residents should have a say in those decisions. Some suggested that extending the franchise in this way would demonstrate that Scotland is an inclusive and welcoming country. The point was also made that Scotland needs to increase its population, and so steps should be taken to encourage new residents to see themselves as part of the community as quickly as possible. This group thought that enfranchising residents would support the process of integration.
Views opposed to extending the franchise to all legal residents
8.8 Respondents answering ‘no’ to Question 17 commonly stated that eligibility to vote should not be based on residence, but on citizenship. In general, this group thought that only British citizens should have the right to vote in Scotland. However, a subset of this group said the franchise should also continue to include qualifying Commonwealth citizens. These latter views, and views about the right of EU citizens to vote in Scotland, are discussed below at paragraphs 8.35–8.37.) Respondents who advocated voting rights being based on citizenship gave the following reasons for their view:
- Non-British citizens are not ‘stakeholders’ in Scotland / the UK to the same extent as citizens.
- The right to vote in an election should be based on a voter’s clear, meaningful and long-term connection to a country.
- It would be unfair that a citizen of another country should be permitted to vote in Scotland if a person from Scotland is not permitted to vote in that other country.
- Voting eligibility based on residence would undermine the sovereignty and future security of Scotland.
- The ability to vote is one of the most important benefits of being a citizen – why offer people citizenship if any resident can vote?
8.9 Some in this group suggested that eligibility to vote should not only require British citizenship but also a period of residence: e.g. ‘to vote in Scotland you should hold a British passport and have lived in Scotland on a permanent basis for 10 years’. Similarly, there were also suggestions among this group of respondents that British citizens living abroad (e.g. ‘permanently’, ‘for more than five years’, ‘for more than seven years’) should no longer be able to vote in elections in Scotland. (It was not clear if this group of respondents thought such lengthy residence requirements should also apply to British citizens who move to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK.)
Length of residence required before becoming eligible to vote
8.10 Both among those who answered ‘yes’ and those who answered ‘no’ to Question 17, there were specific suggestions at Question 18 about how long a person should be resident in Scotland before they can vote. These ranged from ‘there should be no minimum period of residency – if you live here you should have a say’ to ‘25 years’. The most common response was ‘five years’. ‘One year’ and ‘two years’ were the next most common suggestions.
8.11 Some respondents did not suggest a specific period of residence, but made other types of suggestions, the most common of which were that: (i) eligibility to vote should be based on (British) citizenship, not residence; (ii) eligibility should be based on residence plus some other criterion (e.g. paying taxes, speaking English, having no criminal history, etc.); or (iii) there could (or should) be different residence requirements for local authority elections versus Scottish Parliament elections versus other votes (e.g. referenda). Occasionally, respondents suggested that the minimum period of residence should be linked to the length of a parliamentary term (i.e. either four or five years).
8.12 There were, however, clear differences in the views of respondents who answered ‘yes’ at Question 17 compared to those who answered ‘no’. Those who answered ‘yes’ tended to favour shorter residency requirements – five years or less. This includes some who thought eligibility to vote in Scotland should be available to people immediately upon taking up residence in Scotland. Very few in this group supported a residence requirement of more than five years.
8.13 By contrast, those answering ‘no’ to Question 17 were more likely to say that the residence requirement should be five years or more or that the right to vote in Scotland should be available only to British citizens. None of this group thought that a person should be eligible to vote in Scottish elections immediately upon taking up residence in Scotland, and very few suggested a residency requirement of less than five years.
Explanations for proposed periods of residence
8.14 As noted above, those in favour of extending the franchise to everyone legally resident in Scotland also tended to suggest shorter periods of residence (i.e. less than five years), arguing that ‘if you live here, you should have a say’. This view was particularly common among those who believed there should be no minimum period of residency required.
8.15 However, respondents also often linked their views about length of residence to other factors (or criteria) they felt were important to consider in assessing a person’s eligibility to vote. Furthermore, while respondents did not always agree on the specific length of time an individual should be resident before being permitted to vote, they did generally agree on what these other criteria were – regardless of whether they thought voter eligibility should be based on residence or British citizenship, or whether they suggested a short residence requirement or a long one.
8.16 These criteria were: (i) a person’s status as a tax payer; (ii) the person’s demonstrated commitment to Scotland; and (iii) their knowledge of, and familiarity with, life in Scotland. Each of these is discussed below.
Tax payer status
8.17 The most important factor for respondents in assessing a person’s eligibility to vote was their tax-paying status. Those mentioning this issue often based their views on the principle that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. This argument was particularly prominent among those favouring shorter residence requirements.
8.18 Respondents who opposed voter eligibility based on residence and / or who advocated longer residence requirements had a different perspective on this issue: this group saw a person’s tax paying status as a necessary indication of their contribution and commitment to Scotland.
8.19 Some respondents thought that being a council tax payer should be sufficient for determining voter eligibility for all elections. However, others emphasised that it was not enough simply to pay tax in Scotland, a person must also be resident. Thus, someone who owns property in Scotland but lives elsewhere, should not be able to vote in Scotland. Some suggested that only those who paid income tax in Scotland should be able to vote in Scottish elections. Occasionally, an alternative view was expressed that people who paid council tax but did not live in Scotland should be able to vote in local elections only, but not in Scottish Parliament elections or other national polls (such as referenda).
8.20 Only very occasionally did respondents question whether it was appropriate to link the right to vote with being a tax payer. The point was made that this would effectively disenfranchise unpaid carers and give the impression that Scotland does not value the contributions of such individuals.
Demonstrated commitment to Scotland
8.21 Another important factor for respondents in assessing voter eligibility related to a person’s demonstrated commitment to life in Scotland. Those mentioning this issue thought that ‘visitors’, ‘transient populations’, and certain groups who may be resident in Scotland on a ‘temporary’ basis should not be eligible to vote in Scotland on the basis that they are unlikely to have the necessary commitment to life in Scotland.
8.22 Respondents often equated commitment to Scotland with length of residence, and periods ranging from six months to 10 years were seen by different respondents to be sufficient to demonstrate the necessary level of commitment. Employment (‘contributing to the economy’) was also cited as evidence of commitment by some. Others argued that only by becoming a British citizen could an individual demonstrate their commitment to Scotland, and on this basis, eligibility to vote should be based on citizenship not residence.
8.23 Respondents raising the issue of ‘commitment’ were concerned that people resident in Scotland for only a short period of time should not be able to influence public policy if they do not have to live with the consequences of their vote. They also argued that it was unfair to those who had made a commitment to Scotland if elections could be decided by people who had not made the necessary commitment. Such people would include, for example, students from overseas (or elsewhere in the UK), people working on short-term contracts, ‘migrant workers’, and people who own property in Scotland but who do not live there permanently. Although mentioned less often, this same argument was also applied to people born in Scotland, but now living overseas. Some thought people from Scotland living overseas should be required to show that they were physically present in Scotland – not simply having an address in Scotland – for a certain period of time each year (suggestions ranged from six months to nine months) to be able to vote in Scottish elections.
Knowledge of Scottish affairs
8.24 The third consideration commonly raised by respondents related to a person’s knowledge of life in Scotland. Thus, the length of residence required to be eligible to vote should be long enough for a prospective voter to become familiar with Scottish society, culture, politics, and way of life, and to have a sufficient understanding to be able to take a position on local / national issues. Some respondents in this group suggested that the minimum period of residence required to be eligible to vote should be linked to the length of a parliamentary term (i.e. four or five years).
Groups that should and should NOT be eligible to vote in Scotland
8.25 As suggested in the discussion above, respondents’ comments on this issue frequently focused on who should or – more often – who should not be able to vote in Scotland. Moreover, respondents’ views about residence requirements and other associated factors (i.e. tax paying status, demonstrated commitment, etc.) were often presented as reasons for excluding certain groups from the franchise in Scotland – including some groups who are currently eligible to vote. The main focus of attention was on holiday home owners and students from outside of Scotland. Less often, views were expressed in relation to asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers; prisoners; or EU and Commonwealth citizens.
Holiday home owners and students from outside of Scotland
8.26 Irrespective of whether they answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Question 17, or whether they thought the residence requirement should be short or long, respondents often pointed to two groups that they thought should not be able to vote in Scotland. These were:
- People who owned property, but did not live permanently, in Scotland (referred to as ‘holiday home owners’, ‘second home owners’, ‘absentee landlords’, or ‘summer visitors’ – including those who lived elsewhere in the UK)
- Students living in Scotland temporarily (including students from EU, EEA and Commonwealth countries as well as those whose permanent home was elsewhere in the UK).
8.27 An alternative view, expressed less often, was that these two groups should be able to vote in local authority elections only.
8.28 Very few respondents explicitly expressed support for giving the vote to those who come to Scotland as students. However, one young people’s organisation argued that, whether someone comes to Scotland to work, live or study, they have a fundamental right to have a say in how the country and their local communities are being run. Therefore, enrolment in university, college or a school in Scotland should not be a criterion for denying a young person a vote, but rather should provide evidence of their eligibility. Another organisation suggested that overseas students should be eligible to vote in Scotland if they are studying here for more than one year.
Asylum seekers, refugees and ‘migrant workers’
8.29 Among the respondents who discussed voting among asylum seekers, refugees and ‘migrant workers’ (including people who cannot speak English), there was disagreement about whether these groups should be eligible to vote in Scotland. Those opposed argued that they should first demonstrate a commitment to life in Scotland, and / or they should become British citizens first. However, there were contradictory views expressed – with some suggesting that asylum seekers and refugees should be able to vote if they have permission to work (and pay tax), and others opposed to extending the franchise to contract workers / short-term workers who may be paying income tax on their earnings. (Note that it was not always clear what respondents meant by ‘migrant’, ‘short-term’ or ‘contract’ workers and / or whether these designations applied only to people from overseas or if they also applied to people moving to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK for a temporary work placement.)
8.30 Some respondents answering ‘yes’ to Question 17 specifically argued in favour of giving a vote to asylum seekers and refugees. These respondents thought that whatever definition of ‘legally resident’ is agreed, it should ensure these groups are included – and that they should be eligible to vote if they are ordinarily resident in Scotland on the date of their application to be on the electoral roll. However, it was also suggested that, if a decision is taken not to allow asylum seekers and refugees to vote in Scotland, then other mechanisms should be put in place to enable the views of these groups to inform public policy.
8.31 Among the respondents who raised the issue of prisoner voting, there was disagreement about whether this group should be eligible to vote. Several third sector organisations and some individuals wrote lengthy responses which addressed this single issue. These respondents set out arguments supporting the enfranchisement of prisoners and opposing the current blanket ban on prisoner voting – based on the principle that voting is not a privilege, but rather a basic human right. They argued that preventing people in prison from voting achieves no purpose: it does not protect public safety, act as a deterrent, or contribute to an offender’s rehabilitation. In addition, as a form of punishment, it bears no relationship to the crime committed, and is arbitrarily applied – for example, convicted offenders who are given community-based sentences have the right to vote, but those who are imprisoned are prevented from voting. By contrast, enfranchising prisoners could provide a focus for education, enhance their sense of citizenship, and make a positive contribution to their rehabilitation and return to society.
8.32 This group acknowledged that there may be circumstances in which disenfranchisement is a suitable punishment for an offender – for example, in cases of a person convicted of breaking electoral laws. However, it was argued that the decision to remove the right to vote should be made and communicated by a judge at the point of sentencing, and it was suggested that the Scottish Sentencing Council should be asked to provide guidance to support the courts in using this discretionary form of sentence. These respondents also suggested that there may be certain groups of prisoners for whom disenfranchisement is appropriate – for example, those committing the most serious offences, or those serving life sentences – but that this should be expressly set out in legislation.
8.33 This group also noted that most countries in Europe now allow prisoner voting except in cases of the most serious offences or the longest prison terms. They argued that the current blanket ban on prisoner voting was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and called for the Scottish Government to remove the ban and bring Scotland into line with international norms of democratic accountability and representation.
8.34 Respondents who specifically stated that they opposed prisoners having a vote were, by and large, respondents who were also not in favour of extending the franchise more generally. The main argument given by this group was that if a person had ‘contravened the rights of others’, they should not ‘be afforded the privilege of voting’, and that they have given up the right to vote by committing a crime.
EU and Commonwealth citizens
8.35 Among respondents commenting on whether EU and / or Commonwealth citizens should have the right to vote in Scottish elections, there were differences of opinion.
8.36 Those who answered ‘no’ to Question 17 (opposed to extending the franchise) generally argued that, after Brexit, EU citizens should not be permitted to vote in Scotland unless they become British citizens first. However, in relation to Commonwealth citizens, some thought the same rule should apply (i.e. Commonwealth citizens should become British citizens first) while others thought Commonwealth citizens should continue to be able to vote in Scotland if their countries had reciprocal voting rights for UK citizens.
8.37 By contrast, those who answered ‘yes’ to Question 17 (in favour of extending the franchise to all legal residents of Scotland) generally thought Commonwealth citizens, and EU citizens who come to Scotland after Brexit should be able to vote in Scotland if they live and work in Scotland (subject to the same minimum residence requirement which exists for any other immigrant to Scotland). This group also believed that EU citizens currently resident in Scotland (who already have the right to vote in Scottish elections) should not lose that right when the UK leaves the EU, and they thought this right should also be extended to any EU citizens who move to Scotland before the UK leaves the EU.
8.38 Occasionally, respondents discussed other groups that should, or should not, be eligible to vote in Scotland. Some suggested that voting rights should be available to foreign spouses of British citizens living in Scotland, and foreign spouses of non-British citizens working in Scotland. Others thought eligibility to vote in Scotland should be extended only to the citizens of countries where there are reciprocal voting rights. Groups that should not be eligible to vote in Scotland included people whose assets were held in tax havens and those who could not speak English. Each of these groups was mentioned by a relatively small number of respondents.
Different residence requirements for different types of vote
8.39 Some respondents suggested that there may be a case for having different residence requirements for different types of vote. This view was expressed both among those answering ‘yes’ to Question 17 and those answering ‘no’. Where this issue was mentioned, in general, these respondents thought there could be a shorter period of residence and less restrictive conditions (i.e. anyone legally resident) for voting in local authority elections, whereas a longer residence period and / or more restrictive conditions (e.g. citizenship, income tax payment, place of birth) should be required for Scottish Parliament elections and constitutional referenda. Very occasionally, it was suggested that only people born in Scotland should be permitted to vote in constitutional referenda.
Administrative implications of extending the franchise to all residents
8.40 Some organisational respondents (including electoral bodies) made general comments about the practical and administrative implications of extending the franchise to all legal residents in Scotland. Some emphasised the importance of having a clear definition of the term ‘legally resident’, and clarity about any length of residency requirement.
8.41 It was pointed out that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to have had a form of residency requirement for voters. However, this was abolished in 2014 following concerns raised by the Electoral Commission. The following points were noted:
- Requirements to produce and check proof of address and evidence of length of residency will place a significant additional burden both on a prospective voter and electoral administrators. This could be a significant issue in the run up to a large electoral event. Electoral registration officers would need to be adequately financed to meet any increased resource requirements.
- These requirements are likely to have a negative impact on certain groups that are already less likely to be registered to vote – including young people and people living in areas of higher social deprivation – who may find it difficult to provide the required documentary evidence. Young people living at home, in particular, may be unable to produce documentary evidence of their residence as they may not have a driving licence or a bank account, and are less likely to have a utility bill or other statement of account in their own name.
- The majority of applications to register to vote are currently made using an online (UK-wide) service, which does not allow for the inclusion of information about length of residency. Consideration should be given to how proof of the start of a person’s residency can be incorporated into the online application process to avoid creating a two-track system whereby some voters register online, and others must register using a paper form.
- The Scottish Government should consider whether a residency requirement for voters might have implications for the permissibility of individual donors to political parties and the right to stand for election.
Anonymous registration (Q20)
8.42 Chapter 3 (Section 2) of the consultation paper discussed proposed changes to the existing scheme for anonymous voter registration. The consultation discussed the difference between the two versions of the electoral register: the ‘open register’ and the full version. The open register is available to anyone who wants to buy a copy, while access to the full version is restricted and only used for elections, preventing and detecting crime, or checking applications for loans or credit. Electors may opt out of appearing on the open register; nevertheless, whilst the full register cannot be purchased, it is still available for public inspection, often in libraries or other public buildings in local communities.
8.43 The anonymous voter registration scheme, which has been available for over 10 years, is intended to protect people whose safety might be at risk if their name and address appeared on the (full) electoral register. These would include victims of harassment, stalking or domestic abuse. However, some survivors of abuse have reported difficulties in providing the required evidence or being able to access the people who could attest to the risk to their safety. Thus, the Scottish Government has proposed a number of changes to the scheme, to expand the list of professions who can attest applications, and to add new court orders to the list of documentary evidence that can be used to support an application. Respondents were asked for their views on these proposed changes.Question 20: Do you think that we should make it easier for individuals who may be at risk from any form of abuse to register anonymously, whilst maintaining the integrity of the electoral register? [Yes / No]
8.44 A total of 752 respondents replied to the tick-box question, with a large majority of both organisations (91%) and individuals (78%) expressing support for this proposal (Table 8.2).
Table 8.2: Q20 – Do you think that we should make it easier for individuals who may be at risk from any form of abuse to register anonymously, whilst maintaining the integrity of the electoral register?
8.45 One hundred and thirty-three (133) respondents (32 organisations and 101 individuals) commented at Question 20.
Overall views about anonymous voter registration
8.46 Irrespective of whether they answered ‘yes’, ‘no’ or made no answer to the tick-box part of Question 20, respondents emphasised the importance of maintaining the integrity of the electoral register. Those who answered ‘yes’ generally thought it would be possible to put the necessary safeguards in place to prevent fraudulent voting. Among this group there was widespread endorsement of the safeguards proposed by the Scottish Government.
8.47 By contrast those who answered ‘no’ believed that anonymous voter registration would compromise the integrity of the electoral register and enable fraudulent voting. This group queried how an ‘at risk’ person would be defined and were concerned that certain individuals may be classed ‘at risk’ when (in the views of these respondents) they should not be.
8.48 Both groups commented on the current public nature of the electoral register and suggested ways of improving privacy for voters more generally.
8.49 Each of these main themes is discussed below.
Making anonymous registration easier for those at risk
8.50 Respondents answering ‘yes’ to this question strongly supported the right of vulnerable people to register anonymously. Key messages from this group were that:
- Voting is a fundamental right
- Those who are at risk should be protected, while also being given every opportunity to participate in the democratic process
- Making it easier for these individuals to register anonymously may encourage people to vote who might not otherwise do so.
8.51 The general view from these respondents was that ‘no one should have to choose between voting and their own safety’. Some described the proposal as ‘common sense’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘workable’.
8.52 Among those who supported the proposal, including those who did not answer the closed question, there were comments on: (i) the eligibility for anonymous registration; (ii) the evidential sources required to support an application for anonymous registration; (iii) the types of professionals who should be able to attest applications; and (iv) the process and timescales for renewing anonymous registration.
Eligibility for anonymous registration
8.53 There was general agreement that those who are victims (or at risk) of harassment, stalking or domestic abuse should have the right to register anonymously. Some respondents expanded on these categories and suggested that the following groups should also be considered ‘at risk’:
- Victims of human trafficking
- Those at risk of forced marriage, honour-based violence or female genital mutilation
- Any person at risk of violence or threatening behaviour
- People who have suffered emotional abuse.
8.54 In addition, respondents identified situations involving child abuse, where the safety of a child might be at risk if the name / address of their parent / guardian was publicly available.
8.55 There were also suggestions that people with learning disabilities (who are disproportionately at risk of harassment, abuse, hate crime and exploitation) should have the option to register to vote anonymously, and that the professionals involved in administering the process should have the necessary training to assist this group in doing so.
8.56 Finally, there was also a view that, in discussing the proposals in the specific context of gender-based violence, the consultation paper had not sufficiently recognised other groups who may be reluctant to have their name and address publicly available, due to fears for their personal safety. Respondents noted, for example, people who may be at risk because of personal or family debts linked to addiction, the use of informal money lenders, or the actions of unscrupulous landlords etc.
8.57 Less often, the view was expressed that ‘everyone should be able to register anonymously’, not only people who were at risk of harm, but anyone who desires privacy.
Evidential sources to support an application for anonymous voter registration
8.58 In general, respondents who answered ‘yes’ to Question 20 thought that the process of applying for anonymous voter registration should be as straightforward as possible.
8.59 Some identified sources of evidence which should be used to support an application for anonymous voter registration. These comprised different types of protection and exclusion orders issued by the courts, and there was a view that recently expired orders should also be able to be used to support applications. It was suggested that Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) should be consulted on other relevant orders and proceedings that might be used as evidence. In addition, the point was made that not all victims report domestic abuse to the police, and, in the case of rape, not all complaints lead to prosecution. Thus, there needs to be other sources of evidence (apart from protection orders and other evidence of criminal proceedings) which individuals can use to support an application for anonymous registration.
Professionals who may attest applications
8.60 There was support for expanding the current list of professionals who may attest applications to include: lower ranked police officers (those ranked Inspector or above were specifically mentioned); registered health professionals (including hospital doctors, GPs, nurses and midwives); staff (not just managers) in specialist domestic abuse and rape crisis services (including Women’s Aid and Men’s Aid groups). Other respondents also advocated inclusion of: social workers, qualified counsellors, first responders (under the national referral mechanism to identify victims of human trafficking), and victim support services.
8.61 Respondents thought that expanding the list of professionals who could attest applications would reduce the burden on the limited group of professionals currently able to do so. They thought it would be particularly helpful to include health professionals among the list of attestors, as some individuals (including those who may have suffered persecution in other countries) may not trust the police. In addition, as mentioned above, not all victims report domestic abuse to the police or take action through the criminal justice system. At the same time, however, there were concerns voiced about the possibility of GPs or other health professionals charging a fee for this service, thus creating a financial barrier for applicants.
Process and timescales for renewing anonymous voter registration
8.62 Occasionally, respondents commented on the process and timescales for renewing anonymous voter registration. Those who did generally argued that there should not be a requirement to reapply or obtain further attestation on an annual basis. These respondents argued that domestic violence does not operate on an annual basis, and they suggested that a person should remain anonymous on the electoral register as long as their situation remains unchanged. Respondents emphasised that the process for renewal must not be onerous or act as a barrier to retaining (anonymous) voter registration.
8.63 There were different views among this relatively small group about what the renewal period should be (ranging from five years to indefinitely, and / or linked to the length of any protection order). Regardless of the period chosen, there was also a call for greater clarity and consistency in the information available to applicants about the process for renewing their anonymous registration.
8.64 An alternative view put forward by one electoral organisation was that the current system of annual renewal helps to ensure the accuracy of the electoral register by confirming that a voter is still resident at their address. However, this organisation stated that there was scope to improve the system by reducing the amount of evidence that applicants must produce each year when renewing their anonymous registration.
Other suggestions relating to implementation
8.65 Those who supported easier access to anonymous voter registration made a number of suggestions about the implementation of this facility:
- Electoral registration officers should publish a statement explaining the checks undertaken to confirm that an individual is entitled to register anonymously.
- Rather than having postal ballot papers posted to the home addresses of those who have registered anonymously, there should be provision for these individuals to access their postal ballot at a secure centre close to their home, or within easy travel distance – e.g. a post office, bank or other similar public office where staff have agreed to maintain confidentiality.
- There should be criminal penalties leading to imprisonment for data breaches which may compromise the personal safety of anonymous voters.
Views opposed to making anonymous registration easier for those at risk
8.66 Respondents answering ‘no’ to this question generally did so because they thought that making it easier for people to register anonymously would compromise the integrity of the electoral register and enable fraudulent voting. This group believed that anonymous voter registration should be reserved exclusively for those it covers at present; and that it should not be ‘too easy’ for people to register to vote anonymously.
8.67 Other reasons given by this group for opposing greater accessibility of anonymous voting for those who are at risk of abuse were that: (i) there is enough scope in current legislation to give protection to those who need it; (ii) voting is a privilege and responsibility – anyone entitled to vote must be willing to identify who they are; (iii) elections must be open to scrutiny and able to be challenged by the public; and (iv) there should be nothing secret or hidden in democratic voting systems.
8.68 Some respondents (both those answering ‘yes’ and those answering ‘no’ to Question 20) suggested alternatives to anonymous voter registration. These included: allowing people to vote using their National Insurance Number instead of an address; remote electronic voting using an email address, text number or a personal access code; using Blockchain technology which (it was claimed) allowed individuals to control their own voter registration record; and using biometric registration. There was no information provided on how these alternatives would work in practice. There were also suggestions that, rather than registering anonymously, a person should be required to have their name on the register, but not their address (which would only be available to the electoral registration office).
The public nature of the electoral register
8.69 Less often, some respondents queried why the electoral register is a public document at all. This group believed that the electoral register should not be available in any form to any individual or organisation apart from local or national government bodies and organisations involved in administering elections. There were also suggestions that the ‘open’ register should be opt-in only; that it should be illegal to sell the information in the electoral register; and that debt collection agencies should not be able to access the register. Such comments were made both by those who answered ‘yes’ and those who answered ‘no’ at Question 20.
Registering and voting at local government elections (Q21 and Q22)
8.70 Chapter 3 (Section 3) of the consultation paper discussed current legislation which permits individuals to register and vote in local government elections in more than one local council area. In order to be able to do this, individuals must meet the necessary residency requirements for each area (i.e. they must be able to prove that they are resident, and spend a significant amount of time at each address). However, it was noted that there are ongoing concerns among members of the public about (i) the potential for owners of holiday homes to register and vote twice – despite the fact that it is not permitted to register to vote at a dwelling that has been identified as a holiday home for council tax purposes; and (ii) the risk that individuals registered to vote in more than one local authority area may vote more than once in other (national) elections – which is illegal.
8.71 Questions 21 and 22 asked for views about registering and voting at local government elections as follows.
Question 21: Should a voter [continue to] be allowed to register in more than one local authority area? [Yes / No]
Question 22: Do you agree that a voter should only be allowed [to] vote once in local government elections in Scotland? [Yes / No]
8.72 Overall, as can be seen from the tables below:
- Respondents were generally not in favour of allowing registration in more than one local authority area, with two-thirds (65%) of organisations and 86% of individuals expressing opposition (Table 8.3).
- The vast majority of both organisations (85%) and individuals (93%) agreed that a voter should only be allowed to vote once in local government elections in Scotland (Table 8.4).
Table 8.3: Q21 – Should a voter be allowed to register in more than one local authority area?
Table 8.4: Q22 – Do you agree that a voter should only be allowed to vote once in local government elections in Scotland?
8.73 A total of 274 respondents – 25 organisations and 249 individuals – made comments in relation to Question 21 and / or Question 22.
8.74 Although these two questions asked about distinctive aspects of the local government elections process (registration and voting respectively), there was substantial overlap in the comments provided; indeed, it was common for respondents to answer Question 22 by saying ‘see my answer to Question 21’. Therefore, responses to these questions have been analysed together.
Overview of comments about registering and voting in local government elections
8.75 The predominant view was that ‘one person, one vote’ was appropriate for local government elections. Respondents thought that this would promote fairness, increase public confidence, be simple to operate and reduce the potential for fraud. It would also bring local government elections into line with other (national) elections. Only a small minority supported continuation of the current arrangements.
8.76 It was common for respondents to conclude that a ‘one person, one vote’ approach necessitated a system whereby an individual had be registered in one place and one place only. For those who did not draw this conclusion, there were divergent views about the benefits (or otherwise) of permitting registration in more than one place. Some thought that having multiple registrations was convenient, and improved accessibility. Others thought it increased the chances of fraud and should therefore be avoided.
8.77 Respondents’ views are set out in more detail below.
‘One person, one vote’
8.78 There was a range of arguments to support the view that ‘one person, one vote’ was an appropriate approach to adopt for local government elections as follows:
- Democracy is about equality. Everyone who has a right to vote should have an equal say. It is particularly unfair if (wealthy) people and / or landlords with multiple properties are allowed to have a greater say in the outcome of an election. Anything other than ‘one person, one vote’ is discriminatory.
- The current system allowing multiple registrations is complex, and open to abuse. If the ‘one person, one vote’ system was implemented this would be simple to operate and would make it easier to detect any fraudulent voting. Moreover, a simple system of ‘one person, one vote’ will increase public confidence in the voting system.
- Under current rules, someone with multiple properties in a single local authority area does not receive multiple votes in that area. This means that within the local authority area the ‘one person, one vote’ rule is preserved. This rationale should be extended across local authority areas.
- Other (national) elections operate on the basis of ‘one person, one vote’. There is no reason why local government elections should be different.
Those with more than one residence
8.79 Respondents recognised that there were circumstances in which individuals might have more than one (legitimate) residence. They mentioned students especially in this regard, but also extended their comments to those who worked away from home during the week and / or those whose lives were split across multiple residences (including seasonal workers, carers, people with learning disabilities, etc.).
8.80 As far as these individuals were concerned, respondents expressed a range of views as follows:
- It was important to have a flexible system which encourages people to vote. This means that these individuals should be allowed to register in more than one local authority. However, in many cases respondents went on to say that this multiple registration should not result in individuals being able to vote more than once.
- Everyone with more than one residence should be allowed to choose where their main residence is and vote there (and only there). This was important because it would not be fair for someone to be able to decide this for each election, on the basis of where their vote had the potential to ‘count most’.
- Students should be able to (register and to) vote either at their term-time residence or at their home address (but not both).
- Students should be allowed to (register and to) vote only at their home residence. Part of the rationale for this view was that students could ‘disenfranchise the local population’ if they voted at their term-time address (as students are potentially a very large proportion of the local franchise).
8.81 These comments were sometimes linked to more general comments (see the analysis of Question 12 above) about the desirability of being able to vote from any polling station, anywhere (although only once). They were also sometimes linked to a discussion of postal and / or proxy voting which, it was argued, negated the requirement for multiple registrations.
Views of those who are in favour of retaining the current arrangements
8.82 A small number of respondents were in favour of retaining the current arrangements. They reiterated the arguments made in the consultation paper that: (i) if you pay rates in a local authority area then you should be entitled to a vote; (ii) business rate payers should be allowed a vote in relation to each business premises; and (iii) unlike (parliamentary) constituencies, each local authority is a separate body with its own governance arrangements.
8.83 In addition, it was argued by a very small number of respondents that the number of multiple registrations (and therefore multiple votes) should ‘not be open ended’ and should be limited (a maximum of two or three registrations / votes was suggested).