Electoral Commission publishes report on voting system referendum question
News release published: 30-09-2010
The question for the proposed referendum on the UK Parliamentary voting system should be changed to make sure voters find it easier to understand, according to an assessment published by the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission – the independent elections watchdog – is required to assess the intelligibility of the proposed referendum question, to ensure that people can understand the question they will be voting on.
The Commission undertook research to find out whether people could easily understand the proposed question. On the whole, people taking part in the research found the UK Government’s proposed referendum question clear and understood what it was about. But some people, particularly those with lower levels of education or literacy, found the question hard work and did not understand it. The structure of the question, its length, and some of the language used made it harder to read than it needed to be.
The Commission has recommended a redrafted question that addresses these issues.
The Commission also reports that, so far, voters have a limited understanding of the voting systems they will be asked to choose between in the proposed referendum on 5 May 2011. The elections watchdog identified a gap in public knowledge and understanding of what ‘first past the post’ means and, in particular, what the ‘alternative vote’ electoral system is.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, said:
“We have an important role to play in providing an independent check that voters find the referendum question easy to understand and the best way to do this is to ask the public themselves.
“People told us that the wording of the question – with some changes – was easy to understand. However, they have a limited knowledge of what the ‘first past the post’ system is and almost no understanding of the ‘alternative vote’ system.
“Our research took place without the campaigns and extensive media coverage that will be in place in the run up to the referendum. We found that when participants had more information on how both systems worked, their understanding improved and they could cast their vote in the way they intended.
“Campaign groups and the media will play an important role in the run up to the referendum. And the Electoral Commission will also be playing its part, by providing every household in the UK with information on both voting systems and how they can cast their vote.”
The Commission carried out qualitative research with voters from across the UK and a variety of age groups and backgrounds. The Commission also consulted experts on accessibility and plain language including the Welsh Language Board, as well as campaign groups and other interested parties.
The question assessed by the Commission is contained in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill currently before the UK Parliament. The final wording of the referendum question is a matter for the UK Parliament.
The Commission’s report on the proposed question can be found at www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/uk/referendum
For further information contact:
Press office on 020 7271 0704
Out of office hours on 07789 920414
Notes to editors
- The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the UK’s democratic process. We regulate party and election finance and set standards for well-run elections and are responsible for the conduct and regulations of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000).
- The Commission’s report on the proposed question can be found at www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/uk/referendum
- The Political Parties, Elections & Referendums Act 2000 gives the Electoral Commission a statutory responsibility to assess the intelligibility of the proposed question for certain referendums.
- The original wording of the question as contained in the PVSC Bill is as follows: “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”
- The Commission’s proposed redraft of the question is as follows: “At present, the UK uses the ’first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ’alternative vote’ system be used instead?”
- The Political Parties, Elections & Referendums Act 2000 gives the Electoral Commission other statutory responsibilities in relation to referendums. More details on our role in a referendum can be found here: www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/referendums