Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum by the Electoral Commission (POS 32(a))

ELECTORAL PILOTS AT THE JUNE 2004 ELECTIONS

  When we met earlier this week with you and other ministers, concern was expressed that the Commission's position on the pilot regions was being misinterpreted and that a clear statement from us would help to provide clarity.

  In September 2003 we were directed by Government to make recommendations as to which regions were most suitable to undertake all-postal voting and which of these was most suitable to include an e-enabled element in the pilots. We were asked to take into account a number of criteria to which the Commission added a range of other factors, in particular the capacity and willingness of the Regional Returning Officer and Local Returning Officers.

  In our report published in December we concluded that there were two regions—North East and East Midlands—which best met the criteria and were suitable for piloting all postal voting. We named a further four regions that were potentially suitable as pilots. These were, in order of suitability, Scotland, Yorkshire and the Humber, North West and West Midlands. We felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions, having assessed their suitability against the guidelines we had applied The remaining four regions (excluding London and Northern Ireland who were not part of this exercise) we felt were unsuitable to run all postal pilots.

  The direction did not require or ask the Commission to express a view on the number of regions in which it would be appropriate to run pilots, only to examine the suitability of each region for pilot status. The Commission did not in its report express a view on how many pilot regions should be nominated.

  The guidance we were given by Government indicated that you wanted to run with three pilot regions and this view was re-inforced by the statement issued in response to our report which accepted the two regions we regarded as most suitable but added that you would look for a third from those who were potentially suitable.

  We always recognised that it was open to Government to have discussions with those regions falling into the "potential" category to see whether the reasons we had identified for not making a positive recommendation could be satisfactorily resolved. We understand those discussions took place, although the Commission was not involved in them

  However, it does not follow that the Commission would be unconcerned about the number of pilot regions. As I have mentioned, we expected the Government to nominate three regions and were surprised to learn that the Bill was to be amended to name four regions.

  You are aware of our view that the rollout of all postal elections needs to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework. We have recognised at the same time that pilots provide the means by which we can test and learn from new ways of voting and that of necessity they have to be conducted without the full range of new measures we would wish to see, in particular individual registration. To date piloting has been on a limited scale, but you are aware of our view that so far as all-postal elections are concerned most of the lessons have been learned. Nonetheless, we welcome their use on a regional basis in order to test issues of scalability. But in our view pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary in order to address those issues. especially in the absence of the underlying legislative change we consider necessary. There is also in our view increased risk, with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries, in running on such a large scale and we are not persuaded that the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two.

  It is of course for Parliament to decide the number of all postal regions. But we urge that this matter is resolved as quickly as possible. Preparation time is already limited and further delays will add to the uncertainty and risks. I should perhaps end by saying that whatever the decision of Parliament I have no doubt that Regional Returning Officers for the pilot areas will work to ensure that there are successful elections in June. The Commission will continue to work with them to provide what assistance we can.

  I am putting this letter in the public domain by publishing it on our website

Sam Younger

Chairman


 
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