Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Written evidence from The Electoral Commission

WELSH AFFAIRS COMMITTEE INQUIRY: BETTER GOVERNANCE FOR WALES

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Electoral Commission welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee's inquiry on Better Governance for Wales. The Commission's representatives will be happy to expand upon or supplement any of the points made below in oral evidence to the Committee.

  2.  The Commission's representatives giving oral evidence to the Committee will be Glyn Mathias, Electoral Commissioner, who has particular responsibility in the Commission for Welsh affairs, and Kay Jenkins, Head of the Commission's Wales Office.

  3.  The Commission's evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee is based on matters within the Commission's statutory remit, that is, electoral issues. The Commission submits no evidence to the Committee on the question of a new Executive structure for the National Assembly for Wales or on enhancing the Assembly's powers, as these are not matters in relation to which the Commission has any statutory role.

  4.  The Commission's evidence mirrors its submission to the Secretary of State for Wales made in response to the White Paper Better Governance for Wales, September 2005, available on www.electoralcommission.org.uk.

ABOUT THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION

  5.  The Electoral Commission is an independent body established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) in 2000. The Commission is headed by a Chairman and four other Commissioners. The Chairman and Commissioners do not have connections to any political party, nor is the Commission accountable to Government. It is funded by and responsible to Parliament through a committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. We aim to foster public confidence and participation in elections by promoting integrity, involvement and effectiveness in the democratic process.

  6.  Under Section 6 of the PPERA, the Commission is required to keep under review, and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State, on such matters relating to elections as the Commission may determine. The elections for which the Commission has statutory responsibilities include elections to the National Assembly for Wales. The Commission is also required, by section 5 of PPERA, to prepare and publish reports on the administration of elections to the National Assembly for Wales. The Commission is required to promote public awareness of current and pending electoral systems in the UK, under section 13 of PPERA.

  7.  We have, to date, published the following reports on elections in Wales:

    (a)  The National Assembly for Wales elections 2003: the official report and results (November 2003).

    (b)  Local elections in Wales 2004: the official report (December 2004) (Undertaken at the request of the Welsh Assembly Government).

  8.  Prior to the National Assembly election in May 2003, we published in December 2002 the research report Wales Votes? This focused on public attitudes towards Assembly elections.

  9.  We have also published the following relevant reports on UK-wide elections, including Wales:

    (a)  Election 2001: The official results.

    (b)  The 2004 European Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom (December 2004).

    (c)  Securing the vote (May 2005). Further reporting on the UK Parliamentary election 2005 will be published by the Commission in autumn 2005.

  10.  In all of the reports cited, we have commissioned and published the findings of expert research on attitudes towards voting and the electoral process, including quantitative and qualitative public opinion polling. Our reports also include the findings of expert election results analysis including, for example, on the two votes currently used in the National Assembly electoral process.

PROMOTING PARTICIPATION AT ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

  11.  The Commission very much welcomes the intention signalled in the White Paper to implement a key recommendation made in our statutory report on the National Assembly elections 2003, that is, to provide for powers for the Assembly to arrange for public information campaigns to promote participation in its elections. We believe this will be beneficial to voters and look forward to working alongside the Assembly in fulfilling our own duty to promote public awareness of the 2007 Assembly elections. Promoting participation at elections is, of course, the collective responsibility of all involved in the electoral process.

ELECTORAL ISSUES

  12.  The White Paper outlines the Government's proposal to change the provisions currently in the Government of Wales Act such that individuals would be prevented simultaneously from being candidates in constituency elections and being eligible for election from party lists. The Commission's comments on this proposal are set out below.

Some context and criteria

  13.  The Electoral Commission's statutory remit requires us to promote public awareness of all current and pending electoral systems in the UK and the Commission has not to date taken a view on the merits of any particular electoral system.

  14.  The White Paper is not concerned with the merits of particular electoral systems and proposes an amendment to an element of the existing additional member system that the White Paper argues causes voter confusion and concern.

  15.  In formulating our own proposals for changes to electoral law and practice, we place the interests of the voter at the centre of our considerations. Our priority is that electoral arrangements should create the best possible conditions for political parties and candidates to engage with the electorate. Furthermore, we aim to ensure that electoral practitioners can effectively and efficiently administer electoral arrangements.

  16.  At the National Assembly elections in 2003, the main story, alongside the actual election results themselves, was the low levels of voter turnout, at only 38%. We commented in our statutory report[1] that all concerned with elections and electoral processes were left with a serious challenge. We stated that all those with an interest in promoting democratic involvement had, and continue to have, a responsibility to examine how they could more effectively engage with and gain the confidence of the electorate.

  17.  In our audit of political engagement[2] we pointed out that what is incontrovertible is that turnout is on a downward trend in the UK and that much research has found the public to have low opinions of politicians and of politics. Turnout at the UK Parliamentary election in 2005 showed only a marginal improvement on 2001.

  18.  We believe it important that any amendment to the current electoral process is considered in the context of a continuing distrust of politicians and against the interplay of factors that resulted in low turnout at the last National Assembly election. Any change should be considered in the context of how it might impact on public perceptions and voter participation at the next Assembly election.

  19.  Any change should also be considered for its impact in a UK-wide context, as well as within Wales. In particular, the same electoral arrangements apply to the Scottish Parliament and were introduced at the same time as those of the National Assembly. Wales would have an electoral process unique to itself if the proposal in the White Paper were implemented.

  20.  In light of these points, we believe the following criteria are important in considering a change to the existing electoral arrangements for the National Assembly:

    (i)  the change and the reasons for modifications should be comprehensible to voters;

    (ii)  the change should be "fair" and be seen to be fair in the eyes of voters;

    (iii)  there is a need to avoid of accusations of partisanship, which could impact adversely on participation; and

    (iv)  there is a need to consider broader context, including the potential impact of any change on other electoral systems in the UK.

International comparisons: dual candidacy

  21.  There are around 30 countries that have mixed or additional member electoral systems (AMS[3]). Compensatory systems with lists, like that used for the National Assembly elections, normally explicitly or implicitly permit dual candidacy. They normally require that in the event of double success, the successful candidate must sit as a member for the constituency.

  22.  Candidates have been permitted to run for both constituency and lists in Germany since the AMS system was inaugurated there in 1949. New Zealand, Japan, Hungary and Russia, all of which introduced mixed member systems in the 1990s, permit dual candidacy. In Italy, Denmark and some regions of Germany, dual candidacy is expressly required.

  23.  Prevention of dual candidacy to our knowledge has until now only been tried in the Ukraine, prior to the 2002 Parliamentary elections there.

  24.  Preventing dual candidacy was considered when the electoral system for Quebec (Canada) was reviewed in 2003. Although the review acknowledged concerns that defeated constituency candidates were being "recycled" as regional AMs, the review board concluded that dual candidacy should be required. It was proposed to make mandatory what was likely to happen in any event, namely that the most advantageous places on each party's list should go to the party's constituency candidates in the region. The conclusion was that each regional AM must therefore have contested a constituency seat.

  25.  In light of international norms, we would caution that there should be compelling reasons for introducing a change to an electoral process that is as yet untested over a period of time. Whilst the effects of change can to an extent be predicted, unexpected trends might emerge that have not been possible to assess or analyse from experience in other countries.

Voter perspective: dual candidacy

  26.  In the time available to respond to the White Paper, it was not feasible for us to commission public opinion research on the issue of dual candidacy. Drawing on our quantitative and qualitative research on public attitudes to the National Assembly election in 2003, however, we note that the "Clwyd West problem" as described in the White Paper did not emerge in any of our attitudinal research about voting in the election. As our research included unprompted questions to the public about their reasons for voting or not voting, this may suggest that there was in fact low public salience of the issue at the time.

  27.  In the absence of any research findings on voter attitudes on dual candidacy in the public domain, we believe it is necessary for the Government to provide more information regarding the justifications underpinning the statement in the White Paper that voters are confused and concerned about the issue and that it is a disincentive for voters. It would be helpful for any evidence base to be made publicly available, to throw further light on this matter.

  28.  It is possible that some of those members of the public said to be critical of dual candidacy may in fact be criticising an outcome of proportional representation, compared with the majoritarian "first past the post" system to which voters in Britain have been traditionally accustomed. The Additional Member System used at the National Assembly elections is specifically aimed at an outcome whereby the party list system "corrects" the advantage gained in the constituency election under first past the post.

Impact on political parties and candidates: prevention of dual candidacy

  29.  There would be no impact on the proportionality of the result; it would remain as at present.

  30.  At present, some high profile candidates stand for election in constituencies, with the fall back of election through the regional list. A party may be unlikely, under this proposal, to risk a high quality candidate to challenge in a constituency election; opposition parties may be obliged to run their major players in regional lists to ensure election. This may impact adversely on the quality of some constituency contests, where opposition candidates may be perceived to be "second string". This in turn is likely to favour sitting candidates.

  31.  In preparing its response to the White Paper, the Commission contacted all political parties registered to contest elections in Wales. From those that responded giving us their views, the majority were strongly opposed to the change. Some parties advocate more fundamental change to the Assembly's electoral process or indeed to the Assembly itself. But there is a perception that the change proposed favours incumbency and the current party of Assembly Government that holds the large majority of constituency seats.

CONCLUSION: PREVENTING DUAL CANDIDACY

  32.  Our main consideration is the voter's perspective. In light of the need to encourage voter participation at the Assembly election in 2007, we would caution against any change that is perceived to be partisan and could add to a prevailing distrust of politicians.[4]

  33.  On the evidence available to the Commission, which we have reviewed above, we do not believe that the case for change has been made out.

AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH—A SINGLE VOTE

  34.  In the course of discussions about the White Paper's proposals, an alternative option to preventing dual candidacy has been mooted; that alternative was referred to, for example, by Secretary of State Peter Hain at a seminar held to discuss the White Paper in Cardiff. The option is that the current AMS system could operate with one vote.

  35.  A compensatory mixed system such as AMS may operate with one vote; the vote is cast for a constituency candidate but is also considered to be cast for the candidate's party, thereby electing regional candidates from a party list. The current d'Hondt formula of calculating vote shares could operate with the one vote; the total of the constituency votes across the region could be used to calculate the allocation of list seats, rather than the total of the regional vote currently used. The calculation could take into account the number of constituency seats won when calculating the list allocations, similar to the present system. However, without seeing this option set out in written proposals detailing how it would work, comments are to an extent speculative.

  36.  It is notable that, in the context of National Assembly elections, implementing this option would mean that a voter would cast one vote in an election for five candidates—to elect a constituency Assembly member and four regional members.

International comparisons

  37.  The overwhelming majority of existing compensatory systems have two votes. Changes over time indicate a clear trend towards two votes. The exceptions to the two vote system are the two largest Lander of Germany: Northern Rhine-Westphalia and Baden Wu­rttemberg.

  38.  The option has also been raised in Scotland during deliberations of the Arbuthnott Committee, which is considering the consequences of having four different systems of voting in Scotland, and different boundaries for Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies. However, there is little evidence that the option has been widely debated in Scottish civic society or is one which has attracted significant media or public comment.

Voter perspective

  39.  One vote could be said to be simple and straightforward; voters would have only one choice to make. The corollary is that voter choice would be reduced. Personal and political choices would be merged; voters would no longer be able to vote for a preferred individual local candidate with their constituency vote and a preferred party, which might be different, with their second vote. Neither would any other type of differential or "tactical" voting be possible.

Impact on political parties and candidates

  40.  Of those political parties in Wales who gave us their comments on this issue, opposition is strongest from smaller parties and from those who advocate more fundamental change to the Assembly electoral process.

  41.  The main disadvantage of this option is that small parties would have significant hurdles to mount in order to attract votes. Under the single vote proposal, a party or individual effectively has to stand in a constituency election in order to gain votes and would have to stand 40 candidates, one in each constituency, in order to claim to be contesting the election across Wales. Even within one region, a party would have to contest every constituency to be said to be covering the whole region. This would be a significant cost and resource issue for small parties.

  42.  In National Assembly elections, it is already comparatively difficult for small parties or independent candidates to be successful in the regional vote. This is because, in practice, the threshold to be elected in the regions is already high, at about 12% of the vote. This contrasts with elections to the Scottish Parliament, where the ratio of regional to constituency seats is lower. The proposal would therefore to the disadvantages faced by small parties or independent candidates.

Conclusion: a single vote

  43.  Our conclusions on this issue are similar to those on the proposal set out in the White Paper; we would caution against any change to the current electoral process without strong evidence to back the case. If this proposal were to be considered actively, it would need more flesh on the proposed process and should therefore be the subject of full consultation.

1 September 2005



1   The National Assembly for Wales elections 2003, November 2003. Back

2   Research reports, jointly with Hansard Society, March 2004. Back

3   In drawing international comparisons, we have been assisted by Prof D Farrell of Manchester University, Dr R Scully of Aberystwyth University and Mr A Ellis of the IDEA in Sweden. Back

4   For example, see Audit of Political Engagement, The Electoral Commission, March 2004. Back


 
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Prepared 13 December 2005