Scottish Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, The Electoral Commission

Ahead of our appearance at the Committee on 2 November 2011, I wanted to set out some of our thinking on referendums in general and, in particular, the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

As a voter-focused organisation we do, of course, have a great interest in how any referendum, including a referendum in Scotland, will be conducted. Where a referendum is held under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) the Commission has a number of responsibilities including, commenting on the intelligibility of the question; regulating campaigning; designating lead campaigners and reporting on the referendum. The Chair of the Commission (or someone they appoint) acts as the Chief Counting Officer, responsible for the conduct of the referendum and ensuring the accuracy of the overall result.

A referendum called by the Scottish Parliament would not be run under PPERA and therefore there would not be an automatic role for the Commission. It would be for the Scottish Parliament to decide who they wanted to co-ordinate the administration of the referendum, regulate the campaigners or carry out an assessment of the referendum question.

Given the Commission’s considerable experience in running referendums (including the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales which took place in March 2011 and the referendum on the voting system for UK Parliament elections which took place in May this year), we do have a view on some key points that ought to be addressed in planning for any referendum. We would offer the same advice on these points to any Parliament or legislature considering the rules for a proposed referendum. There are five main areas that we consider should be addressed in planning to deliver a voter-focused referendum, and in all of these areas we would be willing to offer advice based on our experience. They are:

a well-planned poll which is consistently and professionally delivered;

a comprehensive public awareness campaign so that voters know how to participate and understand what they are voting for;

a clear process for the designation of the Yes and No campaigns, and clear rules for those campaigners;

transparency in relation to campaign expenditure and funding; and

a careful and independent assessment of the intelligibility of the referendum question.

In our view, the nature and scope of any referendum is a constitutional issue for governments and parliaments to decide. Whether or not there is a referendum, who runs it and who votes are all fundamental constitutional questions. Our priority is simply to ensure that the referendum is well-run.

We believe it is important that the plans for any referendum are considered carefully and fully, so we do not intend to comment on speculation about the conduct of any proposed referendum until there are specific proposals to respond to. Regardless of whether we have a role in a Scottish independence referendum, when proposals are brought forward we will be ready to use our recent experience of running referendums to offer advice to ensure it is well-run for voters and produces results that are accepted.

November 2011

Prepared 4th May 2012