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Chair of Electoral Commission calls on government to consider central co-ordination at elections

Published: 15 Jun 2011

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission and Chief Counting Officer at the recent referendums on the Parliamentary Voting System, and the powers of the Welsh Assembly, will today propose that consideration should be given to introducing greater central coordination of elections, learning from the structure that was in place at those referendums.

The administration of the referendum was significantly different than that at elections with the Commission taking on a central oversight role and the Chief Counting Officer able to direct returning officers and monitor their performance ahead of polling day to achieve best practice. In contrast UK parliamentary general elections are administered locally by returning officers, with no national coordination. The Commission’s role is limited to offering guidance.

Ms Watson will make the recommendation in a speech to the Constitution Unit reflecting on the referendum experience. She will set out ideas for how the administration of elections and referendums can be improved to deliver the best possible service to voters. She will argue that the central coordinating role taken on by the Electoral Commission and the Chief Counting Officer’s power of direction for this referendum delivered significant benefits for voters.

The Commission is currently collecting information from voters, campaigners, parties and electoral administrators on the lessons from the 5 May polls and will publish a full report in October 2011.

Jenny Watson will say today:

“Consideration should now be given to whether greater central coordination of UK parliamentary general elections is appropriate. At the referendum consistency and assurances about the quality of electoral administration was achieved through my directions and performance monitoring.  I can’t see any good reason why that level of consistency for voters would not also be desirable at elections. While there’s no need to create a new structure of bureaucracy, there does need to be capacity to make sure, on the important issues, that everyone gets the same high quality service.”

Ms Watson will also call on the UK government to bring forward a set of generic rules for future referendums and elections. This would ensure the rules for referendums are clear before the debate on a particular referendum’s virtues or the question to be asked. This would provide clarity for administrators, campaigners and voters and allow better planning ahead of future referendums without reducing parliamentary scrutiny of the case for or against a particular referendum.

On this she will say:

“I’m also clear now that we need a better approach to referendum and election legislation that removes all the need for debate about the detailed rules that occurs in the run-up to every major poll and creates uncertainty for those planning them and campaigners…this would be a relatively straightforward change but one with the potential to make a real difference in enabling electoral administrators and campaigners to plan properly for future referendums…A set of rules for how a referendum, and each major election works is what we intend to push for to avoid the 11th hour changes to a process that should be open, accountable and clear from before the referendum campaign begins.”

Other themes Jenny Watson will outline in her speech include:

  • Referendums have been relatively rare in the past. But they have been used more regularly recently and that may continue to increase. We may also see new elections for Police and Crime Commissioners and an elected House of Lords in the near future under as yet uncertain rules, making the case for reform of election processes both important and urgent.
  • There should be standardisation of the forms and notices that voters use at national elections and referendums, with polling cards and ballot papers designed centrally to the highest standards of accessibility and clarity.
  • Consideration needs to be given to the process of verifying votes to ensure it is accurate and meets its objectives of confirming the accuracy of election results.


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Notes to Editors

  1. 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, 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).
  2. Jenny Watson will address the Constitution Unit from 13:00 Wednesday 15 June at University College London.
    The full text of the speech will be available on the Electoral Commission website from 13:00 on 15 June. It is also available under embargo from Electoral Commission press office. Please contact 020 7271 0704
    The speech will be available to watch online after the event on the Constitution Unit website
  3. The Electoral Commission will publish its report on the 5 May polls in October. This report will include a range of formal recommendations to government for proposed improvements in referendums and elections to ensure voters receive the best possible service.