Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to Minutes of Evidence (Volume II)

Appendix 9

Memorandum by the Director of Campaigns and Elections of the Liberal Democrats


Participation in local and general elections

Liberal Democrats believe that the most important measures required to increase turnout in our elections are outside the remit of the Committee. These would include changing the voting system to one in which every vote counted equally.

Other steps such as varying the locations of polling stations, hours and days of poll could be considered on an experimental basis.

In 1996 I observed an experiment in the United States aimed at increasing voter turnout during the Presidential election. In Texas, polling stations can be located in shopping malls and are open throughout shopping hours for a fortnight prior to the poll. Turnout did increase as a result, but by less than two per cent—whilst the costs of opening a polling station for a fortnight must have been greatly increased.

Improving the accuracy of the electoral register, simplifying the forms on which you apply for an absent vote and supplying copies of these forms with the form for inclusion on the electoral register would be good measures to increase voter participation.

Voter registration

As local authorities have had increased statutory responsibilities and severely limited resources in recent years, the employment of canvassers to assist with the compilation of the electoral register has declined.

We supported the private members' bill (put forward by Harry Barnes) to promote best practice with compilation of the electoral register. We believe that the employment of canvassers to assist with the compilation is particularly important in areas where English is often not the first language spoken. Declining tur5555555nout may be partly explained by deterioration in the accuracy of the electoral register.

Access for people with disabilities to polling stations

We support the recommendations of the report "Polls Apart 2" published by SCOPE after the last General Election. Improving access for disabled people to polling stations will in many cases improve access to buildings which should already have disabled access eg. schools, libraries, community halls etc. We believe that the Audit Commission should make disabled access to polling stations a Local Authority performance indicator.

Mobile ballot boxes could also be considered which could be taken round by appointment with residential homes where a significant number of people may qualify to vote by post. This may provide more privacy for the voter casting their vote than when a member of the staff of the home issues postal votes.

Provision could also be made for "early voting" in at least one place in each constituency or council area which would have excellent access for disabled people.

We welcome the inclusion of logos on ballot papers as proposed in the Registration of Political Parties Bill. The small size and the serif style of the typeface used for party descriptions makes this part of the ballot paper difficult for many people to see. A larger print and with a sans serif typeface would make it easier for people to see party descriptions.

Names and descriptions on ballot papers

The Registration of Political Parties Bill will prevent the most obvious abuses of the system such as that by Richard Huggett who stood as a Literal Democrat in Devon in 1994 and in Winchester in 1997.

It may not, however, deal with all the problems of "bogus" candidates standing with descriptions which are similar to those of major political parties.

Without clearer legislation, Returning Officers may still be faced with a problem deciding which descriptions are admissible and there may be legal action resulting from their rulings.

In Liverpool this May, for example, four candidates in the Anfield ward included the word "Labour" in their description and two included the word "Liberal".

It should be clear that each of the major parties in Great Britain should be entitled to exclusive use of at least one word from their name—eg Labour, Liberal or Conservative. Breakaway groups who do not have the official support of their party should not be able to breach democratic principle by standing as "Anfield Ward Labour Party", New Labour, Real Labour, Socialist Labour or Liberal.

Descriptions such as "Liberal" are particularly confusing when so many MPs from other parties deliberately refer to the Liberal Democrats as Liberals.

In West Bromwich in the General Election, a so-called Labour candidate, standing against the Speaker, polled 23 per cent of the vote. It should not have been possible for a candidate not supported by the Labour Party to stand with the word "Labour" in the description. In the same constituency a "National Democrat" candidate polled 11 per cent suggesting confusion with Liberal Democrat.

We believe that a greater number of signatures should be required for nomination in order to reduce the number of frivolous or "commercial" candidates such as the "Buy the Daily Sport Party", the "Alfred Chicken Party" etc.

The nomination form should be clearer and should draw attention to the need for the description to have been completed and for the nominator to support the candidature. Many problems with nominations have been caused by the illegal completion of the description after papers had been signed.

In Winchester in the General Election it was clear that people had been tricked into signing the nomination paper for the "Liberal Democrat—top choice for Parliament" candidate—who they did not wish to support. Perhaps an individual form in which each nominator is required to sign confirming their support for XXX XXX who is standing as XXX would avoid this problem.

This may be particularly important in the European elections when the possibility of a Freepost delivery to several million households may tempt many more commercial or fringe organisations to stand candidates.

Franking of ballot papers etc.

Given the cost and controversy over the Winchester re-run and the fact that a Presiding Officer in the by-election resorted to use of a fork in order to frank ballot papers, the continued relevance of franking must be questioned.

The numbering of the ballot papers should be a sufficient measure to prevent fraud.

In many other countries, the published results of a General Election show votes at much smaller levels than that of the parliamentary constituency. At one time it may have been necessary to preserve the secrecy of the ballot by not revealing to a particular landlord how the residents of a village where he owned all the homes may have voted. These considerations do not really apply today.

There seems to be no case today for attempting to avoid voting patterns at ward or even polling district level from becoming public. Indeed, where parties are well organised at counts they are usually able to elicit this kind of information.

It may add to the power of voters in a particular district for their voting patterns to become known officially.

The need for an electoral commission

Most significantly in the consideration of election law issues is the need for an Electoral Commission which has the strong support of the Liberal Democrats.

We believe that it should have responsibility for supervising local, national, European elections and referenda. Its functions should include electoral administration, boundary revisions, the monitoring of election expenses and the allocation of broadcasting time in campaigns.

It would replace the political role of the Home Secretary in advising Parliament on changes to election law, it would oversee the establishment of an accurate and rolling electoral register, boundary changes etc.

With the prospect of new voting systems for new elected bodies and new regulations governing their elections, it is more important than ever to have a body which is seen to be impartial establishing these rules rather than a Government which is under party political control.

If there are to be changes to the rules governing expenditure in elections as a result of the Neill Committee deliberations, then an independent Electoral Commission would be necessary to police these rules. The model of the Australian commission would seem a very good one to follow.

Chris Rennard

Director of Campaigns and Elections

10 June 1998

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