Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

8  Draft electoral administration provisions

The Government's proposals

90. On 13 July and 14 September 2011, the Government published two sets of draft provisions including a number of electoral administration provisions for pre-legislative scrutiny. [97] The draft provisions requiring primary legislation would:

extend the electoral timetable for UK Parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days, and, in doing so, adjust a number of the deadlines within the timetable (in particular the date for delivery of nominations which are fixed at the start of the electoral timetable). This will allow more time for the postal vote process and to facilitate the administration of elections more generally;

make changes to the timing of polling place reviews in Great Britain to bring them in line with the proposals to set Parliamentary terms to five-year periods, and the five year cycle for UK boundary reviews implemented by the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act 2011;

address an oversight in existing legislation to enable a UK Parliamentary election candidate jointly nominated by two or more registered political parties to use on the ballot paper an emblem registered by one of the nominating parties; and

change the law so that a parish or community council election may be held on the ordinary day of election of councillors even if this is also the date of a Parliamentary or European Parliamentary election.

91. Draft provisions that could be achieved through secondary legislation would:

require EROs to check 100% of the identifiers for postal votes at elections; and

extend the 'emergency' proxy voting facility to enable those called away on business or military service unexpectedly, and at short notice, before an election, to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf (as well as people unexpectedly called ill).

92. The proposals published in July have been widely supported. We have had only a very limited opportunity to test the proposals published in September. Some witnesses argued that the draft provisions did not go far enough, with Bristol City Council stating that they would welcome any further extension to the timetable for parliamentary elections.[98] Dr Orford, Professor Rallings, and Professor Thrasher cited research that distance to polling places can affect the number of votes cast there, and called for a review of the distance of polling places.[99] The Electoral Commission has also raised a number of questions and concerns about the detail of the Government's proposals from July, in particular:

a)  why the Government is "proposing that the election timetable should continue to be counted forward from the dissolution of Parliament, rather than calculating deadlines backwards from polling day". This may be to allow for the possibility of an early general election, consistent with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011;

b)  why the Government is "proposing greater flexibility for the timetable for Parliamentary by-elections and polls which are re-run due to the death of a candidate, including flexibility for the Acting Returning Officer over the setting of polling day"; and

c)  whether the Government will "amend the rules to allow an earlier dispatch of postal ballot packs than that which is possible under the current timetable, or explain why it does not intend to make such a change". This seems a matter of particular importance if overseas voters are to have a realistic opportunity of exercising their postal vote.[100]

93. The Government has also asked for views on two further possible reforms which are not currently proposed: for appointing polling and counting agents, and to shorten the deadlines for postal vote applications. The first proposal is suggested "in the context of the proposal to extend the electoral timetable".[101] John Turner, Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, doubted whether changing the deadline for postal vote applications would ease pressures around the process for issuing postal votes, suggesting that with a different deadline "you can just create another period of pressure".[102] We would be concerned at any change that made it harder for people to vote. We recommend keeping the deadline for postal vote applications at eleven days before polling day.

94. Finally, the Government has asked for views on the possibility of amending the Recess Elections Act 1975. At present, under this Act a writ may not be issued in recess for vacancies that arise where a Member effectively resigns their seat by applying for one of the sinecure offices of the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or of the Manor of Northstead.[103] This provision, which originally dates from the 1850s, seems likely to us to be a historical anomaly. In our view, the principle should be that constituents should be left unrepresented for as little time as possible. Unless strong evidence should emerge to the contrary, we recommend that the Recess Elections Act should be amended to allow writs to be issued in recess for any vacancies that arise where a Member effectively resigns their seat.

95. The Electoral Commission has also stated that it is "disappointed with the lack of policy context alongside the draft provisions. The explanatory notes do not provide enough background or evidence to support appropriately detailed consideration of these proposals".[104] Publication of the proposals in two tranches has also not helped in attempting to understand the Government's overall rationale.

96. The provisions published in draft by the Government are largely technical, but the Government needs to be able to explain why it is making the package of proposals that it is, and why it is not taking forward other proposals for change in electoral law, particularly those put forward by the Electoral Commission.

Other possible changes

97. In addition to the Government's proposals, the Electoral Commission has raised a number of areas of law that they believe could be usefully changed. These include:

a)  allowing eligible electors in the queue at close of poll to vote;

b)  giving Returning Officers powers to request a fresh identifying signature from those voting by post (as currently many postal votes are rejected because a voter's signature has changed since their first application);

c)  allowing academics access to the full register for research purposes; and

d)  considering requiring electors to show identification at polling stations in Great Britain.[105] Voters must already show such identification in Northern Ireland.

98. On the issue of close of poll the Minister set out the Government's position that the issues around close of poll in the 2010 election were "largely around poor planning, poor resource management" and that an attempt to legislate in this area could create more problems than it solved.[106] We agree with the Minister that in this area careful planning and allocation of resources are likely to be more effective in ensuring all those who are eligible can access their vote without resorting to legislation.

99. The Committee also received written evidence from a number of expatriates calling for the Government to abolish the current 15 year limit on voting in General Elections when living overseas. Mark Harper responded that it was "something that Government is considering at the moment, but we have not reached a decision".[107]

100. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government set out its position on each of the Electoral Commission's proposals for further reform of electoral administration law.

97   Cabinet Office, Draft electoral administration provisions, July 2011, Cm 8150, and Further draft electoral administration provisions, September 2011, Cm 8177 Back

98   Ev w3 Back

99   Ev w1 Back

100   Ev 108 Back

101   Ev 111 Back

102   Q 181 Back

103   Ev 113 Back

104   Ev 107 Back

105   Ev 109 Back

106   Q 284 Back

107   Q 283 Back

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Prepared 4 November 2011