7 THE OPERATIONAL MANAGEMENT AND OVERSIGHT OF THE REFERENDUM
7.1 Section 2 of the 'Your Scotland, Your Referendum' consultation document contained a discussion about the mechanics of the referendum. The following topics (among others) were covered:
- The operational management of the referendum
- The responsibility for regulation and oversight of the referendum
- The conduct of the poll and the count
- Suggestions for improving voter turnout
- Eligibility to vote (including a proposed extension of the franchise to voters aged 16 and 17).
7.2 The last two points will be covered in Chapters 8 and 9 in relation to the analysis of respondents' comments on Questions 6 and 7 respectively. This current chapter covers the first three points, and provides a qualitative analysis of comments in relation to Questions 4 and 5. (Note that no detailed quantitative analysis was undertaken in relation to these questions.) Given the focus of these two questions, a summary is also provided at the end of this chapter of comments made by the seven electoral organisations who took part in the consultation.
Question 4: What are your views on the proposal to give the Electoral Management Board and its Convener responsibility for the operational management of the referendum?
Question 5: What are your views on the proposed division of roles between the Electoral Management Board and the Electoral Commission?
The Scottish Government's proposals
7.3 The consultation document set out the Scottish Government's proposal that the Electoral Management Board for Scotland (EMB) and its Convener should have the responsibility for the operational management of the referendum. This proposal is consistent with arrangements currently in place for the management of local elections in Scotland.
7.4 The Scottish Government also proposed that the Electoral Commission should have the role of overseeing and monitoring the referendum and the role of regulating campaign expenditure. This proposal is consistent with current arrangements (set out in Scottish legislation) which give the Electoral Commission a role in supervising Scottish local government elections. For the referendum, the Electoral Commission would be responsible to, and report to the Scottish Parliament.
Comments on the roles of the EMB and the Electoral Commission
7.5 Compared to the number of responses to other questions in the consultation, the numbers of responses to these two questions were among the lowest. Out of the 26,219 total respondents, 18,840 made a comment at Question 4 and 18,481 made a comment at Question 5.
7.6 The SNP campaign did not address either of these questions. Both the Scottish Labour and Lanarkshire campaigns agreed with the Scottish Government's proposal that the Electoral Commission should supervise / regulate the referendum. The Lanarkshire campaign also agreed that the arrangements now in place for the management of elections in Scotland should be used in the referendum.
7.7 Comments from individuals (not campaign responses) were often unclear or inconsistent, and these inconsistencies appeared to be based on misunderstandings of the proposals set out in the consultation document.
7.8 Respondents also often said that they did not have enough information to be able to comment. Others stated that they were either not interested, or had no view on the issues addressed by Questions 4 and 5. Among those who made a comment in relation to these questions at all, a quarter made comments on both questions such as: "Unsure", "Don't know", "No opinion", "Don't mind", "Don't care", "Not interested", "Somebody has to do it" or "Doesn't matter". In considering Question 5 alone, nearly 2 out of every 5 respondents made these types of comments.
7.9 However, in considering respondents' other comments on these questions, it was clear that what was most important to them was that the management of the referendum should be - and should be seen to be - fair, independent, impartial, transparent, open to scrutiny, and not subject to political interference, regardless of who organised it. People often made this point and nothing else, and it was not unusual for respondents to say they did not care who organised the referendum, as long as it is fair / impartial / not subject to political interference / etc.
7.10 However, among those who expressed a view, more than half agreed at Question 4 with the Scottish Government's proposal to give the EMB responsibility for the operational management of the referendum. In addition, nearly two-thirds either stated specifically at Question 5 that they were content with the proposed division of roles between the EMB and the Electoral Commission, or they made a more general statement expressing support for the idea of having two different bodies take responsibility for the roles of operational management and oversight. This group also includes individuals who said they agreed with the Electoral Commission having a regulatory, supervisory, monitoring or overseeing role, but who made no further comment on the proposed division of roles.
7.11 It was more common for people to agree in response to Questions 4 and 5 than to disagree. However, one group of respondents wanted the Electoral Commission to have full responsibility for the referendum - because of their experience and perceived impartiality. At the same time, there was also a contrasting view that there should be no involvement from the Electoral Commission. Those who expressed this view tended to have the opinion that the Electoral Commission could be subject to political interference from the UK Government.
7.12 Other less common themes in the responses to Questions 4 and 5 were that:
- The usual practices in relation to the management of elections should apply for the referendum.
- The management and / or oversight of the referendum should be carried out by an external body. Those mentioned most often were the United Nations or some European body.
- Having two separate bodies in the management and oversight of the referendum would be too complicated or bureaucratic.
- An effort should be made to minimise the costs involved in running the referendum.
- Whichever bodies were responsible, they should be answerable to the Scottish Parliament. It was much less common for respondents to say the bodies should be answerable to the UK Parliament.
- The Scottish Government should seek consensus with the UK Government regarding the management and oversight of the referendum.
Comments from electoral organisations
7.13 Seven electoral organisations took part in the consultation, including the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. In general, these respondents were content for the EMB to undertake the operational management, administration and co-ordination of the referendum, and for the Electoral Commission to provide oversight. It was felt that this division of roles would avoid a conflict of interest which could arise if only one organisation was responsible for both administration and oversight. Only one organisation was not in favour of a role for the Electoral Commission in overseeing the referendum, and this was due to a lack of confidence in the organisation.
7.14 Some of the main points raised by the electoral organisations are as follows:
- It was pointed out that some of the proposals set out in the consultation document did not appear to be reflected in the draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill, particularly in relation to the Convener of the EMB acting in the role of the Chief Counting Officer (CCO).
- In general, respondents were content with the Convener of the EMB taking on the role of CCO although one respondent suggested the Chair of the Electoral Commission should have this role.
- It was felt that the Scottish Parliament should have the remit of appointing the CCO and not Scottish Ministers as stated in the draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill.
- Respondents often referred to the UK Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000 (PPERA). This Act provides a generic set of rules for conducting referendums, thus limiting the ability of governments to make rules that would favour their desired outcome. It was strongly argued that the Scottish referendum should be conducted according to this framework, or that the referendum should be administered to standards at least as rigorous as those set out in this legislation.
- Respondents felt it was important that the lessons learned in the 2011 UK Alternative Vote Referendum and the 2011 Welsh referendum - specifically in relation to the role of the CCO - should be taken into account in the Scottish referendum.
- Respondents made the point that sufficient resources would need to be provided to the bodies responsible for operational management and oversight of the referendum to enable them to fulfil their duties.
- Finally, it was suggested that the proposed relationships between the EMB, Electoral Commission and Scottish Parliament should be set out in legislation.
Email: Alison Stout