CONSULTATION PAPER ON VOTING METHODS
1. A number of Members have made representations
to us, in writing or in the course of the debate on the establishment
of the Modernisation Committee, about the House's voting system.
Some suggested that it was slow and inconvenient, and that a better
way of recording the views of the House ought to be found, whilst
others wanted the present system to be retained. We agreed that
the modernisation of our voting system was something we ought
to consider, and accordingly we have investigated the possibility
of replacing the present voting system, by which Members' names
are recorded manually by division clerks and Members are counted
by tellers as they leave the lobbies, by some form of electronic
2. The purpose of this consultation paper is to give
all Members of the House the opportunity to give us their views
on several issues related to voting methods, and in particular
to express their preferences in relation to the present system
and the various electronic options. Members are invited to complete
the response forms which have been circulated and return them
to the Clerks of the Committee not later than Wednesday 20 May.
When we have assessed the responses received we will consider
whether to put forward recommendations to the House.
3. Our specialist adviser, Professor R J Hynds of
Imperial College, will be available to explain the various electronic
options and answer Members' questions about them between 4.00
pm and 6.00 pm on Wednesday 6 May, and again on Tuesday 12 May,
in Committee Room 21.
4. The current system is well known to Members and
there is no need for us to describe it in detail.
5. Its main advantages appear to be these:
It is simple and straightforward.
It has a high degree of accuracy.
There may be slight discrepancies between the names recorded by
the clerks and the numbers counted by the tellers, or one Member
may be recorded as having voted instead of another with a similar
name; and occasionally the tellers report inaccurately the numbers
who have voted.
It is proof against fraud. It is unlikely
that a Member could vote in the place of another without being
detected; and extremely unlikely that a non-Member could vote
in place of a Member.
It offers Members a valued opportunity
to meet their colleagues. (In varying degrees this is also true
of the electronic systems which are discussed below.)
It requires no additional expenditure.
6. On the other hand, it has certain disadvantages:
It is time-consuming. Divisions regularly
take 12-15 minutes to complete.
The lobbies are often congested, and
many Members may have to queue for several minutes before recording
their vote. These inconveniences are particularly severe when
a large number of Members wish to vote in the same lobby.
There is no opportunity for Members to
record an abstention. Only Ayes and Noes can be recorded; the
names of Members who are present in the Chamber but do not vote
are unrecorded, just as if they were absent from the House.
Members who vote in the wrong lobby have
no opportunity to correct their mistake. They can vote in the
other lobby and thus cancel their original, erroneous vote; but
they cannot cast an effective vote.
There is a slight delay after each division
before names of the Members who have voted are made available.
Possible modifications of the
7. Some of the perceived disadvantages of the current
system could be rectified without the need for radical change.
For example, information technology may offer a better method
by which clerks could mark names for example, through
use of screen displays of Members' names and marking by use of
light pens or a computer mouse.
8. There are two possible changes in particular on
which we would welcome the views of Members. Each would be a significant
change of practice but could be accomplished without replacing
the current system of voting.
9. One is the recording of abstentions. If Members
so wished we would investigate the possibility of creating some
kind of "third lobby" adjacent to the Chamber, in the
form of one or more division desks at which Members who were present,
but did not wish to vote for or against the question before the
House, could record an abstention.
10. The other would be to change the times at which
divisions took place. The House might decide that as a general
rule any question on which Members wished to divide should, instead
of being put at the conclusion of the debate, be held over to
a specified time, so that votes could be taken one after another
at a convenient time, so far as possible. This is not as simple
as it may look; but we would investigate the feasibility of moving
in this direction if Members so wished.
11. With the assistance of our specialist adviser,
we have identified four possible electronic systems, using
12. Some electronic systems would in theory allow
Members to vote without having to leave their rooms, or even to
vote from their homes or constituency offices. However, we believe
that the House would not wish to make such a radical departure
from existing practice, so in all the options we put forward for
consideration it is envisaged that voting will take place either
in the existing division lobbies or in the immediate vicinity
of the Chamber. This will ensure that, whatever method of voting
is adopted, divisions will continue to be occasions when Members
are brought together and backbenchers can meet leading figures
in their party.
13. All the electronic systems could provide an instant
print-out of the numbers of Members voting 'Aye' and 'No', with
the names of those who had voted on either side. Division clerks
would not be required to perform their present duties, but would
continue to be available to assist Members who were unable for
whatever reason to use the electronic equipment unaided. Nor would
Members be required to act as tellers, but in certain circumstances
there might be a need for voting to be observed by scrutineers
from either side.
14. We give a rough estimate of the amount of time
a division might take using each of the electronic systems. It
should be borne in mind that at present Standing Order No. 38
requires that at least eight minutes must elapse between the calling
of the division and the locking of the doors. That means that
a division will take a minimum of eight minutes whatever method
of voting is used.
Electronic systems using separate
'Aye' and 'No' lobbies
15. Two of the electronic systems we have identified
would retain the 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies for their present purpose,
and would therefore have the effect of bringing Members together
in much the same way as the present voting system. The principal
difference between them is the means by which Members would identify
themselves for the purpose of voting. One system relies on a 'smart
card', the other on fingerprint recognition.
16. If the smart card system were adopted,
each Member would have his or her own identification card, similar
to the current House of Commons security pass but containing a
small micro-processor chip with a unique identification. About
eight card readers, the size of a small box, would be installed
in each of the division lobbies. Members would vote by passing
their card in front of one of the card readers. In any division,
it would not be possible to vote more than once with the same
card in the same lobby.
17. The fingerprint recognition system works
by taking an impression of several fingerprints from each Member
(several are recorded in case of injury), then processing the
image to identify its characteristics according to a particular
processing algorithm. These characteristics are then stored in
the computer with the Member's name. About eight fingerprint readers,
the size of a small box, would be installed in each of the division
lobbies. Members would vote by pressing one of their (recorded)
fingers against the fingerprint reader; the computer would process
the image to produce the fingerprint characteristics, then compare
it with its stored database of characteristics to identify the
Member and record the vote.
18. Both these systems use reliable technology and
are relatively inexpensive. Taking account both of the cost of
the system and of installation costs, either of these systems
might cost roughly £45,000-£65,000.
19. It might take 10-12 minutes to complete a division
using either of these methods, since Members would still have
to pass through one or other lobby in order to vote. However,
congestion might well be less, since an individual Member would
be able to vote and leave the lobby more quickly than at present.
This still leaves open the question of providing for recorded
abstentions or for the correction (as opposed to the cancellation)
of votes cast in error.
20. The main drawback to the smart card system is
that it would be possible for Members to vote using other Members'
cards as well as their own. Such misuse could be discouraged in
two ways. First, a screen could be installed over each card reader
which would display, whenever a card was used, the name of the
Member to whom it had been issued; any discrepancy between the
name on the screen and the Member using the card would be apparent
to Members who were watching. Secondly, the House could decide
that some severe punishment should be imposed on any Member who
was caught voting with another Member's card. We believe this
would provide a powerful deterrent to fraud.
21. The fingerprint recognition system would make
it impossible to vote by proxy, and would relieve Members of the
necessity to carry a card in order to vote. However, it would
require all Members of the House to have their fingerprints recorded
for inclusion in the database. Although it should be emphasised
that it is the characteristics of the fingerprint rather than
the fingerprints themselves which are stored in the computer,
some Members might find the recording of their fingerprints objectionable
Electronic systems which do not
require the use of separate division lobbies
22. The other two electronic systems we have identified
would not require the use of separate 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies.
The lobbies would still be used for voting, but Members would
be able to vote 'Aye' or 'No' - or to record an abstention - in
either lobby. We appreciate that any system which did not entail
the physical separation of Members would cause anxieties among
the Whips, who would want to ensure that Members of their party
received appropriate guidance as to how to cast their vote. Accordingly
Government Members might find it convenient to vote in the present
'Aye' lobby (which is situated immediately behind the Government
benches), whether they were voting 'Aye' or 'No' on the question
before the House, whilst the Opposition parties used the present
'No' lobby. It would be technically possible for voting to take
place in other locations besides the lobbies, but as we explained
in paragraph 12 any such location would be in the immediate vicinity
of the Chamber.
23. One option would allow Members to vote 'Aye',
'No' or 'abstain' by selecting the appropriate option on a touch
screen. This would require the installation in the division
lobbies, and possibly elsewhere near the Chamber, of a dozen touch
screen kiosks, each consisting of a display screen (of the kind
used with a personal computer) and some associated equipment.
Depending on the method of identification chosen, either a smart
card reader or a fingerprint reader would be included in the kiosk
to identify the Member voting. The software would be designed
to allow a Member to cancel a vote he or she had cast in error
and to cast a fresh vote.
24. This system would also enable a number of votes
to take place in quick succession. In one visit to a touch screen
kiosk a Member could vote 'Aye' on motion no. 1, 'No' on motion
no.2, 'abstain' on motion no.3, and so on. The full results of
the voting on all the motions the system had been programmed to
deal with would be available at the conclusion of the voting session.
This system could accordingly be used to best effect when a significant
number of divisions took place in succession (and no division
was contingent on the outcome of an earlier division), e.g. at
the conclusion of the debate on the Budget, when the question
is put forthwith on large numbers of ways and means motions.
25. However, if only one question was to be decided,
it would take at least as long to decide it by this system as
by the current voting system. Touch screens would be more expensive
than the lobby-based systems discussed earlier - roughly £75,000-£90,000.
They would be more complicated for Members to use than the lobby-based
systems, and would pose particular problems for partially sighted
Members. Depending on the recognition system chosen, the objections
which might be raised against smart cards or fingerprint readers
would also apply to touch screens.
26. The balance of the argument would be affected
if the House were to decide that as far as possible votes were
to be held consecutively at a pre-arranged time rather than at
the conclusion of the debate from which they arose. This possibility
is discussed in paragraph 10.
27. A different method of voting which does not require
separate 'Aye' and 'No' lobbies is that which uses infra-red
cordless handsets. On arriving in the Chamber to vote, Members
collect a handset from a rack at
the entrance to the Chamber;
insert into the handset a unique smart
card bearing a record of their fingerprint characteristics;
confirm their identity by pressing one
of their recorded fingers on the fingerprint reader incorporated
in the handset;
point the handset at one of the remote
detectors (which would be installed in each division lobby, and
perhaps at other locations in the immediate vicinity of the Chamber
as well); and
vote 'Aye' or 'No', or 'abstain', by
pressing the appropriate button on the handset.
The detectors would be switched on at the start of
a division, and off at the end, by the Clerk at the Table on the
instructions of the Chair. A Member would be able to cancel a
vote he or she had cast in error and to cast a fresh vote, provided
of course he or she did so before the detectors were switched
28. The advantage of this method of voting is that,
once the handsets had been issued to Members, divisions could
be completed very quickly, since large numbers of votes could
be recorded simultaneously on the remote detectors. In cases where
a division occurred at an expected time, or immediately after
another division, Members who were already in the Chamber and
had collected their handsets would have finished voting long before
the expiration of the eight minutes laid down in the Standing
Orders. If the rules governing the timing of divisions were changed,
considerable savings of time could be achieved through this method
of voting. If the House thought it appropriate, we would consider
the possibility of significantly reducing the time allowed before
the locking of the doors in cases where Members were already (or
could reasonably be expected to be) in the Chamber, and the possibility
of requiring voting to be completed within a short time after
the doors were locked.
29. Although the various component parts of this
system exist, further development work is still required. If Members
were interested in exploring this option further, we would recommend
to the House that the necessary funds should be made available.
This would be about £40,000.
30. This system would be significantly more expensive
than any of the others we have examined. It is impossible to be
precise at this stage, but the total cost could well be of the
order of £300,000-£400,000.
31. If this system were adopted Members would have
to have their fingerprints recorded. The possible objections to
this are discussed in paragraph 21 above. Members would also have
to carry smart cards with them.
In the current Session (to 21 April) there have been 250 divisions.
On three occasions the numbers of Members voting have been reported
inaccurately by the tellers; on four occasions Members have been
omitted from the division lists; on five occasions Members have
been wrongly identified; and on one occasion a Member has been
wrongly shown as having voted. Back