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Scottish council elections 2017

Summary

Our analysis and research of the May 2017 Scottish council elections shows high levels of satisfaction and confidence in the process. Our assessment is that the elections were well run.

Turnout at the elections was 46.9%, the highest for any stand-alone set of council elections in Scotland since 1977. This is encouraging but still means that less than half of all registered voters voted. Parties, campaigners and all with an interest in democracy have further work to do to encourage people to vote at future elections.

These were the first Scotland-wide set of council elections at which 16 and 17 year olds could vote and significant effort was invested by teachers, local councils, youth organisations, electoral administrators and the Commission to reach these newly enfranchised electors with information about how to register and vote. It was pleasing to see that these efforts were rewarded with this age group more likely to report finding it easy to cast their vote and access information about the elections than those aged 18-34. However, young people have high expectations in regard to the further digitisation of the registration process, including automatic enrolment. This supports our call for further modernisation of the process

Returning Officers, Electoral Registration Officers, electoral administrators and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland worked hard to deliver the elections. Their challenges intensified further on 18 April when the Prime Minister announced a UK general election for Thursday 8 June. The fact that the council elections ran smoothly across Scotland is testament to the significant efforts of the electoral community in Scotland and we extend our gratitude to them.

Challenges for future elections

There are increasing challenges to the successful delivery and regulation of elections

The 2017 council elections in Scotland have demonstrated that further work is needed to improve voters’ understanding of the Single Transferable Vote system and reduce the number of spoiled ballot papers. The framework for regulating campaigning at council elections needs modernising to improve transparency and confidence in the system.

As well as considering changes which we have recommended in this report, we also want to see progress towards implementing more significant reform in three key areas:

  • Improving electoral registration, to make sure the process is more joined-up and integrated with other public services and better reflects citizen’s expectation.
  • Improving the regulation of campaigners, by implementing our regulatory review recommendations and those from 2012 election.
  • Modernising and streamlining electoral law, in line with the UK’s Law Commissions’ 2016 recommendations.

There are opportunities now for the Scottish Government to develop an ambitious agenda for change. We look forward to contributing to their forthcoming consultation on electoral reform which we hope will help take forward more significant reform in the longer term and deliver an electoral process in step with the expectations of the modern voter.


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Registering and casting a vote

The total electorate for the council elections was 4,110,790 which represented a 3.2% increase from the electorate in 2012. A total of 53,687 electors were added to the register in the weeks leading up to the election.

We carried out research with voters to find out whether they had found it easy to cast their vote, whether voting in-person, by post or by proxy. Overall, 86% of those who said they voted at the May polls said they were satisfied with the procedures for voting.

Emergency proxy arrangements

Feedback from EROs suggests the existing provisions for an emergency proxy worked well. There were a small number of queries about allowing a carer to apply for an emergency proxy. We have previously recommended that the qualifying circumstances for an emergency proxy be extended to allow this.

Recommendation 1: We recommend that the Scottish Government consult on and bring forward legislation extending the emergency proxy provisions so that those who have unforeseen caring responsibilities would also be eligible to apply for an emergency proxy.


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Registering and casting a vote

The total electorate for the council elections was 4,110,790 which represented a 3.2% increase from the electorate in 2012. A total of 53,687 electors were added to the register in the weeks leading up to the election.

We carried out research with voters to find out whether they had found it easy to cast their vote, whether voting in-person, by post or by proxy. Overall, 86% of those who said they voted at the May polls said they were satisfied with the procedures for voting.

Emergency proxy arrangements

Feedback from EROs suggests the existing provisions for an emergency proxy worked well. There were a small number of queries about allowing a carer to apply for an emergency proxy. We have previously recommended that the qualifying circumstances for an emergency proxy be extended to allow this.

Recommendation 2: We recommend that the Scottish Government consult on and bring forward legislation extending the emergency proxy provisions so that those who have unforeseen caring responsibilities would also be eligible to apply for an emergency proxy.


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Extending the franchise

This was the first set of Scotland-wide council elections at which 16 and 17 year olds could vote.

Our public opinion research provides an indication that turnout among 16 and 17 year olds is likely to have been similar to 18 to 34s but much lower than among those over 35.

Young people were more likely to vote in order 'to have a say' as opposed to 'civic responsibility reasons'. Young people were also most supportive of reforms to registration and voting and are the biggest advocates of elections being a more digital process.

Recommendation 3: As there are no further scheduled elections in which 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland can vote in until the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, consideration needs to be given to how to engage young people who will become old enough to vote or to register to vote over the next four years. We will work with educational partners and councils to identify opportunities for supporting ongoing political literacy in schools and encouraging young people to register when they attain the age to do so.


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Delivering the poll: co-ordination and administration

The elections ran smoothly with no significant Scotland-wide issues in the administration of the elections.

Status of the Electoral Management Board

The EMB continues to make a positive contribution to effective delivery of elections in Scotland.

At council elections, the EMB can direct Returning Officers in the delivery of the election. In our view these directions supported the interests of voters and ensured high standards of transparency across Scotland. However, the EMB only has power to do this at council elections and no statutory role at parliamentary elections. It contributes to parliamentary elections on a voluntary and mainly unfunded basis.

Recommendation 4: The Scottish and UK Governments must now legislate to provide the EMB with statutory powers for Scottish and UK Parliament elections. The legal status and funding of the EMB also needs to be reviewed to allow it to undertake the management roles it was initially envisaged it would undertake, including overseeing the procurement and delivery of the e-counting project for council elections.

Counting the votes: transparency and accountability

There were no significant issues arising at the 32 individual counts across Scotland. This assessment is endorsed by the feedback from candidates and agents, with 92% of respondents to our candidate survey reporting overall satisfaction that the verification and count process were efficiently run.

We found that transparency was enhanced by the use of the information screens provided at the count. As at previous elections, the information screens provided candidates, agents and observers with information on the first preferences which had been counted for candidates until the point where 80% of the boxes had been scanned. While this information is seen as valuable to candidates and agents, it can lead to false expectation unless it is contextualised as to what is being shown. However, the EMB directed that the screens should be used with information provided to candidates and agents to explain what was being displayed, which we supported.

Recommendation 5: Transparency in the count centre is important and helps the RO achieve an accurate result which is accepted by those present. We recommend that the EMB lead a review, in consultation with political parties and other stakeholders, of the transparency of the e-count processes within the count centre, including the use and content of information screens to ensure the highest levels of transparency and confidence in the count.

E-counting

Following the 2012 council elections, where planning for e-counting had been led by Scottish Government officials, we recommended that the EMB should take the lead on planning for the project in recognition of the fact that it is ROs and not government who are legally responsible for the running of election counts. We were pleased to see the EMB taking on a greater role in co-ordinating the e-counting project for this election. However, there was still a significant reliance on support from the Scottish Government.

Recommendation 6: In the event that e-counting continues to be used for future council elections, ROs must take full control and responsibility for the planning and delivery of the e-counting solution ahead of future council elections. This work should be led by the EMB and needs to begin at least three years ahead of the next scheduled elections in 2022. The EMB will need to be adequately resourced to take this forward.

Publication of results data

Some ROs had difficulty in providing results data at the close of their count and collated results were not published until four days after the election. This is a significant improvement on 2012, this is still not ideal. A single source of the 'national' result of council elections should be available as soon as counts are completed.

Recommendation 7: The provision of a Scotland-wide results service requires planning, resources and practice to ensure smooth running; we recommend that ahead of the next set of all-out council elections further work is carried out to ensure that this service can be delivered accurately and in good time to meet legitimate public expectations.


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Campaigning at the elections

A total of 2,572 candidates (76 more than in 2012) stood to be elected for the 1,227 seats available in 354 wards. Under STV each ward returned either three or four candidates. Overall feedback on election processes from candidates and their election agents was positive.

Use of the electoral register

Candidates at council elections are entitled to copies of the electoral register for their ward, including the election updates which contain the details of those 15 year olds who will reach the age of 16 on or by polling day. They are able to use the information contained in the register for campaign purposes, but must not disclose it to third parties.

Political parties are only entitled to a version of the register and updates that cannot include details of those electors who will turn 16 on or by polling day.

We received some complaints from parties that they were not entitled to a copy of the election register which candidates receive, as they wanted to use the information to target their campaign in support of all their candidates to all eligible electors.

Recommendation 8: We suggest that any changes to the rules relating to the use of the register should be considered alongside a review of the regulation of political parties as set out in recommendation 9.

Campaigning regulations

In our report on the 2012 council elections we said the Scottish Government should review the arrangements for the regulation of campaigning at those elections. In particular we recommended that this review should consider

  • how candidate spending and donations should be regulated and how candidates and agents should be supported to comply with the rules; an
  • whether rules for political parties and general campaigning by non-party campaigners should be introduced at council elections.

No such review took place. Compared to other arrangements for similar elections across UK, the rules for campaigning at council elections in Scotland are out of date.

Recommendation 9: The Scottish Government should review and modernise the regulation of campaigning at council elections in time for any changes to be implemented for the next elections in 2022. The review should consider and respond to the Electoral Commission’s recommendations following the 2012 council and 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, as well as the issues highlighted in this report on the 2017 council elections including:

  • Introducing donation controls for candidates at council elections
  • Giving the Commission a statutory role to provide guidance for candidates and agents at council elections
  • Specifying a list of activities that count against candidates’ spending limits at council elections
  • Clarifying whether candidates employed by ‘arms-length’ bodies delivering council services would need to resign from their employment in order to be a councillor at the relevant council
  • Requiring ROs to publish candidates’ spending returns online as well as through existing methods of public inspection
  • Reviewing the rules on the publication of candidates’ home addresses

The Scottish Government should consult the political parties that contested the 2017 elections, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Commission and any other interested stakeholders on these issues as part of this review.

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