Memorandum by the Director of Campaigns
and Elections of the Liberal Democrats
ELECTORAL LAW AND ADMINISTRATION
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
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
centwhilst 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
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
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 nameeg 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"
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 Democrattop choice for Parliament"
candidatewho 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.
Director of Campaigns and Elections
10 June 1998