9. Access to voting and elected office (Q23 to Q25)
9.1 Chapter 4 in the consultation paper related to widening access to voting and elected office. The consultation paper highlighted the importance of ensuring that the diversity of Scotland’s population was reflected at all levels of public life and drew attention to the current under-representation of three groups in particular: people with disabilities, those from minority ethnic communities, and women. It also described action being taken to address this issue and sought views on further action that might be taken to help widen access.
9.2 The chapter included three open questions – i.e. there were no tick-boxes for respondents to complete. Questions 23 and 24 addressed the broad issues of removing barriers to voting, and widening access to elected office for under-represented groups:
Question 23: What other action could the Scottish Government take to widen access to and remove barriers to voting and elected office?
Question 24: As well as the above arrangements, is there anything else that could be done to increase the accessibility of elections?
9.3 Question 25 focused on women and how the gender balance amongst elected representatives might be improved:Question 25: How can the Scottish Government best support gender balance in those elected as MSPs or local councillors?
9.4 Altogether, 395 respondents (46 organisations and 349 individuals) answered Question 23, 256 respondents (36 organisations and 220 individuals) answered Question 24, and 421 respondents answered Question 25 (34 organisations and 387 individuals). Respondents’ views are discussed below. Overall, a total of 521 respondents answered at least one of the three questions.
9.5 There was a great deal of overlap in the views expressed across these questions, and the comments have therefore been analysed together. The themes identified are reported in sections looking in turn at: (i) overall views; (ii) creating the right conditions for increased access to elections and elected office; (iii) improving access to voting and elections; (iv) widening access to elected office for under-represented groups, including those with disabilities, those from BME communities, and women; and (v) taking forward activity to widen access to voting, elections and elected office. Issues relevant to individual groups are highlighted. A final section looks at other comments made by respondents.
Overall views on widening access to voting and elected office
9.6 Questions 23 to 25 did not explicitly ask for views on whether the Scottish Government should take action to widen access to voting and elections or support gender representation, but instead asked how this might be done. Nevertheless, many respondents did comment on whether action should be taken, with most expressing support. These respondents offered a wide range of comments on the type of action that might be taken, and how these two issues might be taken forward.
9.7 However, opposition to – or reservations about – action also featured strongly in respondents’ comments. Such views were expressed more frequently at Question 25, with its focus on gender, than at Questions 23 and 24 with their broader focus on under-represented groups in general. In particular, there was opposition to ‘quotas’, all-women shortlists (as mentioned in the consultation paper) and other initiatives regarded as ‘positive discrimination’. Indeed, some respondents queried the premise of these questions (Question 25 in particular) and the apparent assumption that there was an issue to address in terms of improving access and that government should take action in relation to this matter.
Creating the conditions for better access to voting and elected office
9.8 Across Questions 23 to 25, there was a widespread view that broad-based action was required to increase participation and engagement in democratic processes, including both voting and running for elected office. While some argued this was required for (specific) equality groups, others thought this was something that needed to be addressed for the population as a whole, with the main points discussed summarised below:
- Respondents called for a reinvigoration of local democracy and a raised profile for local government. There were calls for: (i) increased openness and transparency in council business with specific suggestions for live streaming of meetings, and encouragement of public attendance at meetings; (ii) the creation of smaller local councils, and an increase in the number of councillors; and (iii) greater devolvement of powers and budgets at local level and more opportunities for contributing to decision-making processes. It was argued that these kinds of initiatives would raise awareness and understanding of local politics, increase the opportunities to get involved, and highlight the importance of participation, whether that was via voting or seeking elected office. It was also suggested that people should be encouraged to get involved in local community issues, and that there should be increased support for community development work to help build local democracy. Local participation in formal and informal politics was seen as an important stepping stone to participation in national politics.
- There was a frequently expressed view that improved citizenship education would help ensure that all young people (including those with special needs) had adequate knowledge about Scottish political systems and understood both the importance of voting and how to exercise their vote. Citizenship education could also promote the value of participation in elected office and encourage people to get involved in organisations such the Scottish Youth Parliament.
- Respondents thought there was a need for more information to be made available through various channels and in a full range of accessible formats to ensure that people were properly equipped to engage in politics and public debate. This should cover issues such as the voting system(s); the role of the UK and Scottish parliaments, and local and community councils; and the roles of councillors, MSPs and MPs. There were also calls for information of all types to be made more accessible – respondents thought that complicated language and political jargon acted as barriers to different groups, including those with learning disabilities and those with English as a second language.
- There were calls for a change to the ‘culture’ of politics. Respondents thought that the adversarial nature of party politics and parliamentary debate, and the tone of political discourse and associated online abuse, alienated many groups from formal politics and that this needed to be addressed. Respondents referred to discriminatory (sexist and racist) attitudes and practices within political parties and the political establishment, including bullying and intimidation, and the presence of an ‘old boys network’ which effectively excluded different equality groups. There was, in particular, a widespread view that this culture was a significant barrier to women’s participation. It was argued that many women were put off or disadvantaged by this culture – respondents noted that women had to be very determined and thick-skinned to succeed in this environment. There were calls for a shift to a culture based on positive behaviour and collaborative working, and for steps to be taken to tackle discrimination, harassment and abuse in all its forms.
9.9 With regard to the under-representation of women in elected office, in particular, respondents frequently saw this as a reflection of wider inequalities in society. They highlighted the gender pay gap and the differential in disposable income; the continuation of gendered roles in society which meant that women were more likely to undertake domestic roles and have responsibility for childcare and other caring roles; and sexist attitudes and the gender stereotyping that continued to be promoted by the media and commercial entities. The multiple demands on women’s time meant that they had less personal time available for involvement in politics. It was argued that these issues would need to be addressed in order to achieve an improved gender balance amongst elected representatives. In many cases respondents advocated multi-stranded approaches to tackling these issues, with varying emphasis on different aspects of activity.
Widening access to voting and elections
9.10 There was widespread agreement amongst respondents that action should be taken to improve access to voting. While some focused on particular groups (e.g. those with disabilities) in their comments, other talked more broadly about the need to widen access for equality groups, or for disadvantaged groups more generally.
9.11 Less commonly, respondents did not think that action to increase access to voting was needed. Such respondents thought that current systems were adequate, and that options such as postal and proxy voting were sufficient to overcome any minimal barriers that did exist.
Action to improve access to voting and elections
9.12 Respondents put forward a wide range of suggestions for how access to voting might be improved for different groups within the population. As well as discussing those with disabilities and those from BME communities, respondents discussed how access to voting might be improved for other groups such as older people, younger people, women, those from the LGBTI community, carers and those within the care system, and other disadvantaged and socially excluded groups. Respondents offered numerous detailed points focusing on different aspects of the electoral process – most, however, related to the issues of voter registration, voting arrangements, and information for voters, as summarised below.
9.13 Some respondents saw tackling issues related to voter registration as a key step in widening access to voting. This group was keen to see a simple registration process and a more proactive approach to encouraging people to sign up – e.g. general publicity campaigns as well as initiatives focusing on communities with traditionally low levels of registration, outreach work with marginalised groups (e.g. the homeless or those with addiction problems) or working with schools and community groups. This was seen as particularly important in the context of the individual registration system introduced in 2013. There were calls for the registration process to take account of the needs of the homeless, trans people, those in care, and those with reduced capacity. With regard to the latter, a range of respondents raised the issue of the ‘declaration of truth’ contained in electoral registration forms. Under the current system of individual registration, this declaration must be completed by all those registering, and respondents argued that the law should be changed to allow this to be done by a guardian or someone with power of attorney (as is allowed in England).
9.14 There were also suggestions for automatic registration based on National Insurance Numbers or other official ID, on-the-day registration based on the presentation of ID, or the introduction of incentives to register.
9.15 Some also suggested that prohibiting the use of the electoral register for non-electoral purposes may encourage some to register to vote – e.g. those who were concerned that registering to vote might allow them to be pursued for old debts including council tax debts.
9.16 The process of casting a vote was the key issue for most of those who discussed widening access. There was broad agreement that voting arrangements had to cater for those with special needs. In responding to the question, some organisational and individual respondents focused on addressing the needs of particular groups – e.g. those with learning disabilities and those with visual impairments. Others argued for polling day arrangements to take account of the needs of those with special needs of all types. Individual respondents often described their own personal experiences in attending polling stations to cast their vote.
9.17 The following issues were commonly raised:
- Location of polling stations: Respondents wished to see polling stations in easily accessible locations, with account taken of the distance that might need to be travelled by those in rural areas in particular. There were calls for people to be able to vote in libraries, shops or other convenient locations, for polling stations to be located in venues familiar to particular local communities (e.g. mosques). It was also suggested that voters should be able to choose where to vote, and that mobile polling stations, home visits, and assistance with transport (publicly funded rather than provided by political parties) might all be helpful for groups such as the elderly, those with disabilities or those with caring responsibilities.
- Meeting the needs of those with disabilities: There was a wide range of comments on the importance of ensuring polling stations were fully accessible to those with disabilities and providing appropriate funding for this. Comments focused on:
- Making provision for those with physical disabilities via disabled parking spaces, ramps, wheelchair accessible doors, low level polling booths, etc.
- Catering for those with sensory impairments by using tactile voting, alphabetic ordering of candidates, and technology that supported independent, secret voting, or by offering a BSL interpreter where cost effective – several respondents drew attention to the ‘six principles of inclusive communication’.
- Accommodating those with mental health problems, autism and learning disabilities by providing quiet spaces and information about quiet times, including pictures on ballot papers and other documentation, using simple, consistent signage, and introducing a card which indicated the need for assistance.
- Meeting the needs of those from BME communities: Respondents suggested that information (or assistance) at polling stations should be available in appropriate community languages.
- Timing of elections: There were calls for weekend or public holiday voting, voting over more than one day (see also Question 12b and 13c), extended opening hours for polling stations, and a right to time off work to vote. Such arrangements were seen as helpful to those who relied on carers, those who were carers, and those with health conditions which varied over time. The benefit of avoiding electoral clashes in order to reduce confusion for those with learning disabilities was also noted.
- Provision of assistance and support: Respondents stressed the importance of those with special needs having appropriate support and assistance at polling stations (and with the electoral registration process). Respondents wished to see appropriately trained polling station staff, increased awareness of the assistance available to different groups, increased choice as to whom an individual could take to a polling station to assist them, the opportunity to contact someone in advance of polling day for assistance, and the opportunity to practice with any voting technology. There were also calls for appropriate training for carers, care home mangers and staff, and those working with looked after children to ensure that individuals with particular needs were given appropriate support in participating in elections and casting their vote.
9.18 Many respondents saw internet voting as a solution to the barriers faced by different groups. Most often, respondents argued that those with disabilities would benefit from being able to vote from their own home. Others identified as benefiting included the elderly, those with mental health problems, and those with caring responsibilities.
9.19 Others stressed the importance of ensuring everyone had access to an appropriate means of voting, whether that be online, postal or proxy voting.
Provision of information
9.20 There was a general view that the provision of appropriate information had an important part to play in widening access to elections. Respondents highlighted the need for various types of information – e.g. guidance on the voting system and how to vote; general publicity and awareness raising with regard to electoral registration and forthcoming elections; targeted information on issues relevant to particular groups; campaign literature issued by parties and candidates etc. – to be available in formats suitable for different groups (young people, those with learning disabilities and visual impairments, those with English as a second language etc.). Specific suggestions included the use of polling cards to convey information about voting procedures, and the use of text reminders to encourage voting.
9.21 Some suggested that returning officers might have a role in establishing a single online portal to provide easy access to electoral and campaign information.
Widening access to elected office for under-represented groups
9.22 This section covers access to elected office for under-represented groups. It covers access for disabled people, and those from BME communities, and women, the three groups highlighted in the consultation questions, as well as covering equality groups more generally.
9.23 The main view amongst those who commented on widening access to elected office was that further action should be taken to remove barriers for those in under-represented groups. Respondents identified a range of issues faced by different groups and put forward a variety of suggestions on how these might be addressed. This group emphasised the benefits of greater diversity amongst elected representatives and agreed that the government and other stakeholders (e.g. councils, political parties, trade unions, third sector organisations) all had a role to play in bringing this about.
9.24 Some noted that progress was already being made or endorsed action that had already been taken – e.g. the pilot Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) which offered funding to meet additional expenses incurred by disabled candidates in elections, the ‘50/50 by 2020’ campaign which aimed to achieve gender equality in the boardroom and public life, and the government’s record with regard to promoting gender equality. In most cases however, respondents thought further steps were required.
9.25 The views of those who supported further action, and the proposals they put forward in their responses are discussed in the next section. There were, however, a mix of views about the extent to which statutory or voluntary action should be pursued.
9.26 Less commonly, respondents expressed opposition to, or reservations about, action being taken to remove barriers and widen access to elected office. These respondents offered several slightly different views as follows:
- They did not think there were any significant barriers to suitably qualified and committed people putting themselves forward for elected office or did not think the existence of barriers had been properly established.
- They thought the personal characteristics of elected representatives were irrelevant.
- They emphasised the importance of people being selected and / or elected on ‘merit’ or ability and were opposed in principle to individuals getting preferential treatment, to the disadvantage of other groups because of particular characteristics – such action was seen as ‘undemocratic’, ‘politically correct’, ‘patronising’ and representing a form of discrimination against ‘majority’ groups.
- They were content with the current system, and the action already taken, and did not think anything additional was required.
- They did not think it was the role of government to take (statutory) action on this issue and argued that the selection of candidates and election of representatives should be left to parties and voters.
9.27 As already noted, such views were most common at Question 25, with around a quarter of respondents expressing opposition to, or reservations about, action to redress the gender imbalance in elected office.
9.28 Indeed, the responses to Question 25 revealed a wide range of nuanced views on the pros and cons of taking action to address the gender imbalance in elected representation. As well as offering clear support or opposition to action being taken, the following views were also put forward by respondents:
- Some respondents argued for statutory intervention as the only way to bring about change, while others stated a preference for voluntary arrangements. It was, for example, common for respondents to support action being taken, but to explicitly state their opposition to statutory quotas or all women shortlists (AWS).
- Some had reservations about taking action but felt that it was the only way to get results, was necessary in the short term, or should be used until no longer needed.
- Some accepted that there was an issue but did not think ‘positive action’ was the right way to achieve change – there was concern that this might be counterproductive.
- Some thought the government had a role in tackling the root causes of the gender imbalance and promoting equality of opportunity at a societal level, but not in directly intervening to bring about change in electoral representation.
9.29 Other respondents stated variously that: (i) no groups should get ‘special’ treatment; (ii) there should be a level playing field for all; (iii) the situation was already improving and would continue to do so over time; and (iv) taking steps to address the needs of one group (e.g. women) raised the issue of taking steps to address under-representation of other groups.
Action to widen access to elected office
9.30 Respondents put forward a range of suggestions as to how access to elected office might be widened, as discussed in the sections below. Specific points relevant to widening access for under-represented groups in general and supporting an improved gender balance are highlighted as appropriate.
Education, encouragement and engagement
9.31 There was a broad consensus that improving access to elected office for under-represented groups would require a raft of activities aimed at educating, engaging and encouraging individuals to come forward and get involved in public life.
9.32 Respondents identified the following groups who might require additional encouragement to play a full part in democratic processes: women; young people including those with experience of the care system; those with disabilities, including sensory impairments and learning disabilities; those from BME communities; those new to the country; those with English as a second language; those with caring responsibilities; and those from disadvantaged areas or living in poverty.
9.33 Activities and initiatives advocated by respondents included:
- Training, mentoring and coaching support to help individuals build the skills and experience needed to succeed in politics and public life
- The development of specific qualifications for those interested in pursuing public office
- Publicity campaigns (press, social media, etc.), roadshows and other engagement work targeted at particular groups, and the use of role models in promoting the opportunities and benefits of becoming involved in public life, and encouraging people to stand for election
- Recognition of different points of entry and pathways into politics, and encouragement and support for individuals to get involved in decision-making in their communities, places of work, and places of learning, as well as in local and Scottish elections.
9.34 Although some thought that the government had a role to play in encouraging people to get involved and become elected representatives, other noted the importance of working with umbrella and representative groups to increase the numbers of people coming forward.
Financial and other assistance for those seeking election
9.35 The consultation paper highlighted the establishment of the AEOF as an important step in widening access to elected office by providing financial support to candidates with disabilities. Respondents expressed strong support for this initiative. Many argued that similar assistance should be extended to other groups – e.g. those from BME communities, those with children or carer responsibilities, those from disadvantaged backgrounds – who might face additional expense or financial barriers in running for elected office.
9.36 Some also suggested that there was scope to increase the impact of the fund (or extend the fund) by, for example:
- Raising awareness of the fund and the support available amongst relevant groups
- Increasing the allowances available, and making sure that there were no negative implications for those on benefits
- Ensuring similar assistance was available for all elections
- Extending assistance to an earlier point in the process to increase the chance of selection as a candidate.
9.37 There was also a suggestion that successful candidates could be required to reimburse any allowances received in order to support the sustainability of the fund.
9.38 Respondents also thought there was a place for other types of non-financial assistance to ensure candidates and prospective candidates from disadvantaged and / or equality groups could participate in campaign activities. The need for appropriately scheduled campaign activities, and accessible and appropriately run hustings were noted.
9.39 Although most candidates for elected office do so as representatives of parties, some respondents highlighted the importance of ensuring that those seeking office as independent candidates had adequate support and are not deterred or disadvantaged because of the domination of established parties. Respondents noted the need for improved and accessible information on standing for election, and a review of the deposit and nomination process. There was also a proposal (put forward by some electoral bodies, amongst others) that retuning officers might be given a role in providing access to centrally available, neutral information on all candidates (see also paragraph 9.21) which would be of particular benefit for those standing without party backing.
Candidate selection and the role of political parties
9.40 There was a widespread view that political parties had an important role to play in widening access to elected office (and in improving the gender balance among representatives in particular), given that most candidates at both national and local level stood as party representatives and were selected as candidates via party selection processes. As such, respondents wished to see steps taken to ensure that parties had open, fair, transparent selection systems which would help achieve a more diverse range of candidates, including in winnable seats. There were calls for the establishment of ‘best practice’ for candidate selection and for the monitoring of performance against this.
9.41 With regard to improving the gender balance among elected representatives, some respondents were supportive of initiatives such as all women shortlists for selecting candidates, gender-balanced candidate lists, and ‘zipped’ candidate lists (i.e. alternating male / female candidates) for regional MSP seats for the Scottish Parliament. It was, though, pointed out that where parties had taken such action, this had not always resulted in an improved gender balance (particular attention was drawn to the Green party use of ‘zipped’ lists in the 2016 election).
9.42 More generally there was a commonly expressed view that the culture within political parties discriminated against equality groups, and that action was needed to address this. Respondents thought that political parties needed to take steps to tackle racism and sexism, and to become more inclusive and diverse organisations, and be more proactive in encouraging and supporting different groups to become involved in party structures. Specifically, respondents suggested that parties should:
- Recruit more diverse staff (including parliamentary assistants and researchers)
- Provide equalities training for party officials, staff, candidates and representatives
- Establish codes of conduct and mandatory procedures for the reporting of and responding to discrimination and harassment
- Take active steps to promote equality and diversity, to engage with different communities, to monitor activities and membership in terms of equality groups, and to offer training, mentoring and buddying systems aimed at particular groups.
9.43 There were differing views as to whether parties should be required (by law) to take action of this type or should simply be encouraged to do so.
9.44 It was also noted that community groups and campaigns provided alternative routes to, and relevant experience for, getting involved in politics, and that women, in particular, often played prominent roles in such activities. It was thus argued that greater value should be attached to non-formal types of political participation, and that increased links between grass-roots activists and elected representatives would help ensure that a wider range of individuals contributed to local and national debates.
Carrying out the role of an elected representative
9.45 There was a clear view that steps needed to be taken to make it easier for those from different equality groups to carry out the role of elected representatives (locally or nationally).
9.46 There were calls for ‘flexible’ or family-friendly working arrangements including opportunities for part-time working or job-shares, short working days and day-time meetings, options for video meetings, remote working and voting, and provisions for childcare, and maternity, paternity and carers leave. It was argued that such arrangements would widen access generally but would be of particular assistance to those with disabilities, and those with caring and family responsibilities (who were most likely to be women).
9.47 With regard to those with disabilities, respondents also highlighted the need for fully accessible meetings, and the availability of support and information in appropriate formats for different groups (e.g. those with learning disabilities and sensory impairments) to allow them to participate fully as elected representatives.
9.48 Some highlighted the need to address financial barriers to becoming an elected representative. This was seen as a particular issue at the local level, and respondents argued for the need for the pay and pension arrangement of councillors to be reviewed to make the role a more realistic option for a wider range of groups. In particular, respondents noted that those from equalities groups were likely to experience poverty, and that the structural inequalities in income in society meant that women were more likely than men to be in low paid employment. Thus, such individuals were less likely to have the same financial reserves as other groups to allow them to take on a councillor role, particularly if they were also supporting a family.
The electoral system and electoral rules
9.49 Some respondents identified aspects of the electoral system and electoral rules which might be changed in order to help widen access to elected office. These respondents often focused on possible reforms which they argued would encourage parties to put up a more diverse range of candidates and increase the chances of those from under-represented groups being successful. There were varying degrees of support for extending the use of the single transferrable vote (STV) system to national elections, with some presenting evidence on this point; a move towards wards / constituencies with greater numbers of representatives (see also Chapter 7); the use of a national ‘list’ to help achieve balanced representation in the Scottish Parliament; and the use of a ‘count again’ process instead of by-elections for filling mid-term vacancies in multi-representative wards / constituencies.
9.50 With regard to increasing the number of women elected to office, some respondents expressed support for the option of electoral systems or rules which were explicitly designed to achieve an improved gender balance (or a minimum threshold). These included setting gender quotas for parliament and local councils; having constituencies / wards for which two representatives, one male and one female (or four representatives, split two and two), are elected; requiring gender balanced candidate lists from parties; using the regional list system to achieve gender balance in the Scottish Parliament; and introducing a power to co-opt (proposed in the context of community councils). However, as already noted, not all respondents favoured such actions – regarding them as unnecessary, because (in their view) there was no significant problem to be solved, undemocratic because they took choice away from voters, or undesirable as they may prevent the ‘best person’ being elected.
9.51 Other suggestions for change included the following:
- Encouraging younger people to put themselves forward for election by reducing the minimum age to stand for public office to 16.
- Increasing turnover in representation by introducing a maximum age for candidates or a maximum number of terms that could be served (particularly for those elected via the list system)
- Reducing the dominance of the major established parties (which were seen by some as barriers to increased diversity) by: (i) adapting the ‘list’ system to allow representation of ‘interest’ or umbrella groups; (ii) removing party logos from ballot papers; and (iii) reforming the rules relating to political donations and campaign expenditure, and giving consideration to public funding of parties and the dissemination of campaign literature in local elections.
Taking forward activity to widen access
9.52 Some respondents discussed how any initiatives to widen access to voting, elections and elected office might be taken forward, with two main themes identified in the comments:
- The need for a strategic and evidence-based approach: There was a general view that any action taken needed to be properly planned and evidence-based. Respondents suggested that work should be undertaken to further understand and explore the barriers faced by different groups and to identify international good practice. In addition, future activity should be subject to ongoing monitoring and review. There were calls for the development of action plans including building on current initiatives such as the Race and Equality Action Plan. As part of this process, it was argued that elected bodies and political parties should be required to publish equalities data and that, along with the establishment of minimum standards, this would be important in allowing effective monitoring of progress.
- The need for partnership working and consensus: Respondents (including organisations with a remit in this area) noted that this was not an issue that could be dealt with in isolation and highlighted the importance of relevant organisations working together to explore barriers, agree actions and make changes. Respondents highlighted the importance of seeking non-partisan, cross-party agreement. In addition, although some thought that positive steps had been taken, there was also a view that this was an area with considerable scope for further improvement, and that responsibility for this lay with a range of statutory bodies – e.g. local authorities, national government, the Electoral Commission, and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland – who should work together with other stakeholders (political parties, third sector groups etc.) in taking this agenda forward.
9.53 The need for appropriate resourcing of ongoing electoral services and new initiatives was also noted.