1. In late 2017, the Scottish Government carried out a public consultation to explore options for reforming and modernising electoral processes in Scotland. The consultation contained 25 questions. It discussed and sought views on (i) how often elections should be held (Questions 1 and 2); (ii) who runs elections and how they are run (Questions 3 to 16); (iii) who can register and vote in elections in Scotland (Questions 17 to 22); and (iv) ways of improving the accessibility of voting and elected office (Questions 23 to 25). The consultation ran from 19 December 2017 to 29 March 2018.
2. The consultation contained a mix of closed (tick-box) and open questions. Thus, both quantitative and qualitative analysis was undertaken. The aim of the analysis was to identify the main themes and full range of views expressed in relation to each question, and to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement. Note that, as with all consultations, the views submitted by consultation respondents – who are a self-selected group – cannot be assumed to represent the views of the wider population.
About the respondents and responses (Chapter 2)
3. The consultation received 911 responses – 844 (93%) from individuals and 67 (7%) from organisations. Organisational respondents included third sector organisations (39%), public sector organisations (22%), political organisations (10%), electoral organisations (9%) and campaign groups (6%). A final category of ‘other organisations’ (13%) included professional and representative bodies and electoral technology providers.
Electoral terms (Chapter 3 – Q1 and Q2)
4. The consultation asked for views about whether Scottish Parliament and local government electoral terms (which currently operate on four-year cycles) should be four years, five years or some other length. Respondents were divided in their views on this question, with 50% favouring five-year terms and 44% favouring four-year terms. The remaining 6% of respondents selected ‘other length’; however, most of these respondents provided general comments rather than specific suggestions regarding alternative term lengths.
5. Those favouring five-year terms thought this length of term would support effective government, help avoid clashes with UK Parliament elections, and reduce voter fatigue. Those favouring four-year terms thought this shorter period would support scrutiny, lead to greater accountability, and help keep the electorate engaged in the democratic process. Respondents offered a range of views on the advantages and disadvantages of avoiding electoral clashes, and of operating fixed electoral terms.
Running elections (Chapter 4 – Q3 to Q7)
6. The consultation asked whether the Electoral Management Board for Scotland (EMB) and the Board’s Convener should be given the same functions in Scottish Parliament elections as they already have for local government elections. A large majority of respondents (86%) agreed with this proposal. Respondents discussed (i) the positive contribution of the EMB in running Scottish local government elections; (ii) the importance of individuals and organisations involved in running elections being (and being seen to be) independent; (iii) governance arrangements for the EMB; and (iv) possible other duties and responsibilities which the EMB should take on.
7. Respondents were also asked for their views in relation to the appointment, role and remuneration of Returning Officers (ROs) in Scottish Parliament elections. This role is currently held for both local government and Scottish Parliament elections by a local government officer on a personal basis (often, in practice, the local authority chief executive). A large majority of respondents (86%) thought that the RO appointment for Scottish Parliament elections should continue to be made on a personal basis. Respondents emphasised the importance of the RO role being independent, free from ‘political interference’ (real or perceived) and accountable to the courts.
8. Respondents were divided in their views about whether the role of the RO should become part of the job description of local authority chief executives: 36% said ‘yes’ and 64% said ‘no’. Those in favour thought this arrangement would: (i) represent good value for the tax payer; (ii) allow local authority chief executives to delegate the work involved to other staff in the local authority as they do for their other duties; and (iii) ‘regularise’ what is, in most cases, already current practice. Those who were opposed thought this arrangement would: (i) compromise the independence of the RO; (ii) cause problems regarding the employment of temporary election staff; and (iii) remove the flexibility of local authorities to appoint the most appropriate person for the role – which may not necessarily be the chief executive.
Ballot papers (Chapter 5 – Q8 to Q11)
9. The consultation put forward proposals for removing the current legal requirement for candidate addresses to appear on ballot papers in local government elections. Two-thirds of respondents (64%) agreed with this proposal, and one-third (36%) disagreed. Those in favour of including candidate addresses on ballot papers thought this was important for local democracy and accountability. Those in favour of removing candidate addresses thought this would help protect the privacy and personal safety of candidates and their families. A substantial group of respondents supported including partial address information (e.g. partial postcode, ward, or town) on ballot papers to give an indication of place of residence.
10. The consultation paper also discussed options for counteracting the ‘list order effect’. At present, by law, candidates in local council elections are listed in alphabetical order by surname on the ballot paper. The ‘list order effect’ can result in candidates who are listed higher on the ballot paper being selected over those who are listed lower – thus, those who are further down the list are at a disadvantage. The consultation asked for views about (i) whether a change should be made in the way in which candidates are listed on ballot papers and, if yes, (ii) what form of system would be preferable (rotation, randomisation, alphabetical–reverse alphabetical, or another system).
11. Overall, 81% of respondents supported making a change in the way candidate names are listed on local election ballots papers to counteract the list order effect. Respondents favouring change thought this would be fairer for all candidates. Those opposed thought that the risks of changing the current alphabetical ordering of names were too great. These risks included (i) the potential to cause confusion among voters (particularly if there were multiple versions of a ballot paper in the same ward); (ii) substantially increased costs (in printing, and in retraining polling staff); (iii) practical difficulties in implementation (in terms of proofreading and pre-checking ballot papers, and in counting votes); and (iv) adverse impacts on voters with disabilities (e.g. dyslexia, learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, visual impairments, etc.).
12. Among the respondents favouring change, 64% preferred a system of randomisation – which was described as the ‘fairest’ way to list candidate names and more likely than a rotational system or alphabetical–reverse alphabetical system to overcome the list order effect. However, there was disagreement about whether there should be one version of a ballot paper in each ward (with names listed in random order), or multiple versions. Respondents emphasised that any proposed changes to the design of ballot papers must (first) be extensively tested and assessed for its impact on voters.
Electronic voting (Chapter 6 – Q12 and Q13)
13. The consultation paper discussed possible options for introducing electronic voting into Scottish elections, including the use of electronic voting machines at polling stations, and internet and mobile phone voting.
14. There were mixed views in relation to these questions: 62% of respondents said they would be happy to use an electronic voting machine in a polling place instead of a traditional ballot paper; 49% said that if internet or mobile phone voting was available, they would choose to use that rather than vote at a polling place or by post; and 35% said that if internet or mobile phone voting was available, they would be more likely to vote.
15. Respondents emphasised the importance of public confidence in the electoral process. They thought electoral processes should be verifiable (able to be independently audited and validated), secure (free from outside interference) and anonymous (to protect against coercion). Respondents disagreed about whether electronic voting could assist with and / or guarantee these objectives – either now or in the future – and they offered a wide range of arguments, ranging from the principled to the pragmatic, both for and against electronic voting. Respondents often referred to published evidence in their responses to these questions, and they offered varying interpretations of the evidence depending on whether or not they favoured the introduction of (various forms of) electronic voting.
16. The consultation paper also discussed the possibility of voting on more than one day and being able to vote in any polling place in Scotland (rather than at a single, assigned polling place). Overall, 38% respondents supported the idea of being able to vote on more than one day, and 62% did not, with a wide range of reasons offered for the two opposing positions There were mixed views on the desirability of being able to vote at any polling place (54% were in favour and 46% opposed). Those in favour thought that such a system would reduce the requirement for postal voting (thereby reducing fraud) and help make voting more accessible. Those against the proposal thought this was an unnecessary change (given the availability of postal voting), and that it would increase the risk of electoral fraud, be expensive, create practical problems, and remove the local dimension to voting.
Electoral boundary reviews (Chapter 7 – Q14 to Q16)
17. The consultation paper asked a series of questions about the role of the independent Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland (LGBC). These addressed (i) the process of conducting boundary reviews; (ii) the independent nature of the LGBC; and (iii) the option of allowing flexibility (in certain circumstances) in determining the number of councillors for local government wards.
18. Just under three-quarters (71%) of respondents supported moving to a rolling programme of reviews for local government electoral boundaries. The perceived advantages of this move were that it would allow more time for local consultation and greater engagement in the review process, and that it would result in electoral areas being more accountable through improved representation. However, those who disagreed thought that a rolling programme of reviews could involve different approaches being used in different areas which would lead to a lack of consistency in the conduct of reviews.
19. A majority of respondents (56%) was opposed to Scottish Ministers being able to change the recommendations of the LGBC on constituency and council wards. However, there was general support for the Scottish Parliament being able to challenge the recommendations of the LGBC (75% were in favour). In addition, a majority (73%) did not think the recommendations of the LGBC should have to be implemented without change. In their comments, respondents offered a wide range of views, but emphasised the importance of independence, impartiality and scrutiny in the boundary review process.
20. Around three-quarters (72%) of respondents were in favour of a proposal to allow the LGBC flexibility to recommend wards which have between 2 and 5 councillors, instead of the prescribed 3 or 4 councillors as at present. Respondents generally thought that increased flexibility would allow greater account to be taken of local circumstances such as natural community boundaries and existing links, rurality, population density, geography, travel times and the special circumstances of island communities. Those opposed to flexibility thought the current system worked well, or prioritised ‘parity’ of representation.
Who can register and vote (Chapter 8 – Q17 to Q22)
21. The consultation paper discussed a proposal to extend the current franchise to include everyone who is legally resident in Scotland. More than three-quarters (79%) of respondents supported this proposal. Those in favour argued that decisions taken by government affect all residents, and therefore all residents should have a say in those decisions. Those who were opposed generally believed that eligibility to vote in Scotland should be based on (UK) citizenship, not residence.
22. Respondents’ views about how long a person should be resident before becoming eligible to vote ranged widely, but the most common response was ‘five years’, followed by ‘one year’, then ‘two years’. Respondents often linked their views about length of residence to other factors which they felt were important to consider in assessing a person’s eligibility to vote. These factors were (i) a person’s status as a tax payer; (ii) their demonstrated commitment to Scotland; and (iii) their knowledge of, and familiarity with, life in Scotland.
23. The consultation paper also proposed changes which would make it easier for individuals who may be at risk from any form of abuse to register anonymously. Respondents generally supported this proposal (79% were in favour). All respondents emphasised the importance of maintaining the integrity of the electoral register. Those who were opposed to the proposal thought that an increase in anonymous registrations could compromise the integrity of the electoral register, whereas those who supported the proposal thought that safeguards could be put in place to prevent fraudulent voting.
24. The consultation paper discussed current legislation which permits individuals to register and vote in local government elections in more than one local council area, if they meet the necessary residency requirements in each area. Respondents were asked if they thought (i) a voter should continue to be able to register in more than one area, but (ii) should only be allowed to vote once in local government elections.
25. Respondents were generally not in favour of allowing registration in more than one local authority area (85% were opposed). In addition, the vast majority (93%) agreed that a voter should only be allowed to vote once in local government elections. The predominant view was that the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ was appropriate for local government elections. Respondents thought this would promote fairness, increase public confidence, be simple to operate and reduce the potential for fraudulent voting. In addition, respondents argued that this change was desirable because it would bring local government arrangements into line with other (national) elections.
Access to voting and elected office (Chapter 9 – Q23 to Q25)
26. Finally, the consultation paper invited views about ways of removing barriers to voting, widening access to elected office for under-represented groups, and supporting gender balance among elected representatives.
27. Respondents thought that broad-based action was needed to increase participation and engagement in democratic processes among various equalities groups (older people, younger people, those with disabilities, people from black and minority ethnic communities, women, people from the LGBTI community, carers, those within the care system and other disadvantaged and socially excluded groups). They called for (i) a reinvigoration of local democracy and a raised profile for local government; (ii) improved citizenship education; (iii) more information to be made available in accessible formats; and (iv) a change in the ‘culture’ of politics (e.g. adversarial nature of party politics, tone of political discourse and associated online abuse) which can alienate many groups from becoming involved in formal politics. There was widespread support for practical actions to make it easier for individuals to participate in elections and cast their vote – there was a general consensus that this was appropriate and important. There was, however, a greater diversity of views on the extent to which government (and / or political parties) should take action to assist those from different groups in becoming elected representatives, and the extent to which any action should be statutory or voluntary.