The Electoral Commission

The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK

Section menu

Observing at elections in the UK

Review of electoral observer scheme

This consultation closed on 31 October 2018.

We are required under legislation to administer a scheme for accrediting election observers in the UK.

Our research suggests that the scheme is largely working well. However, we have identified a number of changes to the scheme which would help to maintain and improve its transparency, accessibility, impartiality and security.

We propose changes in the following areas:

  • clarifying and modernising the application process
  • clarifying expectations about the role of observers
  • improving guidance on the practicalities of being an observer
  • establishing a voluntary feedback process for observers
  • updating the Code of Practice for electoral observers

This consultation summarises the changes we propose and seeks views.

What is this consultation for?

The Electoral Commission is an independent public body, established on 30 November 2000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA).

In 2006 the UK and Scottish Parliaments made rules (the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006) to open up UK elections to electoral observation, for international and domestic groups and individuals.

The Electoral Commission is required to administer a scheme for the accreditation of electoral observers across the United Kingdom and produce a Code of Practice setting out how observers should apply and what they must do. The Code must also provide guidance to Returning Officers on working with observers.

The observer scheme has now been running for over ten years. Following elections in 2016 and 2017, we gave a commitment to review the scheme and the Code of Practice to ensure they continue to fulfil the purpose for which they were established.  A review has been running since the start of 2018, during which we have identified a number of changes that we believe would further improve the scheme and the Code.

We must consult with the Secretary of State and the Scottish Ministers before changing the Code. However we also believe it is important to gather views from the wider electoral community and other interested groups and individuals on the changes we propose making.

What is the observer scheme?

What the law requires us to do

The Political Parties Elections and Referendum Act 2000 (PPERA) requires us to administer a scheme for the accreditation of electoral observers across the United Kingdom.

Under Part 6 of PPERA:

  • a person who is aged 16 or over may apply to the Commission to be an accredited electoral observer
  • an organisation may apply to the Commission to be accredited for the purpose of nominating electoral observers
  • we must prepare a Code of Practice for electoral observation

International principles of electoral observation

Standards for international electoral observation are set out in the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers. These were launched at the United Nations in 2005 and establish the basis for credible international election observations.

The Declaration stresses the principles of:

  • independence
  • impartiality
  • professionalism
  • the grounding of election observation in international human rights law
  • the need to keep under review the long term nature of elections
  • the need to establish minimum conditions for credible observation
  • the important role of domestic election observers

We subscribe to the International Principles and International Code of Conduct and adapted them in establishing our original scheme to provide the foundation for observation of elections in the United Kingdom. We believe that they should continue to provide the foundation of our observer scheme and Code of Practice.

How the observer scheme works

Individual observers and accredited organisations

There are two types of observers: individuals and observer organisations. Those wishing to become observers apply to us for accreditation. During the period of their accreditation, they are entitled to observe the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers, the poll and the verification and counting of votes.

The expected standards of behaviour of observers are set out in the Code of Practice. Observers who fail to comply with these standards may have their accreditation revoked.

Commission representatives

Representatives of the Commission are similarly entitled to attend electoral proceedings. Section 6B of PPERA also provides for representatives of the Commission to observe the working practices of an Electoral Registration Officer, a Returning Officer or a Counting Officer, as well as the working practices of any person acting under their direction.

Commission representatives are required to comply with the Code of Practice in the same way as individual observers and observer organisations.

Why are we suggesting changes?

The scheme has been running now for over ten years. Following elections in 2016 and 2017, we gave a commitment to review how the current scheme operates and to review the Code of Practice for electoral observers.

We have carried out a review of the current scheme in the first half of this year. This included:

  • reviewing the fundamental policy aims of the scheme
  • looking at international comparisons
  • consulting informally with stakeholders

Overall we have found that our scheme works well and is one of the strongest schemes of its kind.  However, during the review, we identified a number of improvements which could be made, for example by improving the information we provide to observers and establishing a voluntary feedback process for electoral observers.

What changes are we suggesting?

We have defined four key principles against which the success of the scheme should be measured:
  • Transparency: like electoral processes, the observer scheme should be open and clear
  • Accessibility: nobody should be excluded, so anyone who wishes to be an observer and meets the criteria should be able to do so
  • Impartiality: observers must be and be seen to be impartial
  • Security: observers must not create any obstacle or disruption to the delivery of the electoral process

To help us achieve this, we have identified the following areas where we believe improvements can be made:

  • clarifying and modernising the application process
  • clarifying expectations about the role of observers
  • improving guidance on the practicalities of being an observer
  • establishing a voluntary feedback process for observers
  • updating the Code of Practice for electoral observers

Clarifying and modernising the application process

The application process for becoming an observer is currently paper-based.  As part of our digital strategy we propose moving this process online, although we will still ensure that applications can be made by paper should anyone be unable to access the process online.

We will also take this opportunity to update the information available about the scheme, and to set out clearly:

  • the criteria against which applications are assessed
  • the process for reaching decisions on applications
  • the grounds on which appeals can be made and the process for doing so

We will do this by setting out clearly in our Code of Practice for electoral observers:

  • how we will handle applications
  • how we reach decisions when assessing applications
  • how decisions to reject or revoke accreditation can be challenged

This will cover both new applications and situations where accreditation status is revoked.

We will also review the application process to determine what more we could do to make it accessible for all, and will seek to provide support to any applicants who may need help when applying to become an observer.

Questions

  • Do you have any views on the Commission's proposals for clarifying and modernising the application process?
  • Do you have any views on how we could further improve the accessibility of the application process?
  • Is there anything else we should do to clarify and modernise the application process?

To respond email: EAConsultation@electoralcommission.org.uk

Clarifying expectations about the role of observers

We will update the Code and accompanying information to ensure that observers have access to information about the electoral proceedings they’re entitled to observe and about their role in them.

For example, the revised Code will be simplified to make it easier to understand and will set out clearly the standards of behaviour expected of electoral observers. We will also provide improved guidance to electoral officials around the facilitation of electoral observation. We will also ensure that anyone who wants to is able to apply to become an observer, access proceedings and is able to understand the processes taking place at those proceedings.

Questions

  • Do you have any views on what additional information might be provided to electoral observers?
  • Is there anything else we should do to clarify expectations about the role of an electoral observer?
  • Do you have any views on how we could further improve the information made available to ensure access to and understanding of electoral proceedings?

To respond email: EAConsultation@electoralcommission.org.uk

Improving guidance on the practicalities of being an observer

We propose a number of changes to make it easier for observers to fulfil their role and to work in collaboration with electoral administrators and others who oversee the electoral process:

  • We propose that, in future, observers should be strongly encouraged to tell administrators in advance where they propose to visit. This will help to ensure that observers can get the most out of their visits. It will not, however, preclude them from making unannounced visits or changing their plans.
  • We will change the design of the observer badges to draw a clear distinction between Commission representatives and accredited observers.
  • We will support electoral observers by providing more information on personal safety.
  • We will improve advice and guidance to ensure that observers are aware of the standards expected of them and the sanctions for breaching those standards. For example, our Code of Practice will be updated to clearly set out the standards of behaviour expected of electoral observers and the sanctions for breaching the Code.
  • We will also clarify the powers electoral officials have when dealing with misconduct and ensure they have a route for raising concerns directly with the Commission.

Questions

  • Do you have any views on our proposals to improve guidance on the practicalities of being an observer?
  • Is there anything else we should do to improve guidance on the practicalities of being an observer?

To respond email: EAConsultation@electoralcommission.org.uk

Establishing a voluntary feedback process for observers

There is currently no process for observers to provide feedback on their findings. We therefore propose creating a voluntary feedback mechanism so that observers can provide feedback to us, which we would in turn be able to share with those responsible for administering the poll in the area where the observation took place.  We are exploring several options for this, such as an online survey or template which observers could access in advance of the election to help facilitate their observation.

Questions

  • Do you have any views on our proposal to establish a voluntary feedback process for observers?
  • Is there anything else we should do to facilitate observers providing feedback on their observations?

To respond email: EAConsultation@electoralcommission.org.uk

Updating the Code of Practice for electoral observers

In addition to making amendments to address the proposals outlined above, we have also identified a number of further changes we could make to the Code to ensure it is easily accessible for anyone who is interested in observing and for electoral officials.

For example, we have simplified the layout and language within the Code so that is easier to understand and strengthened information to ensure that observers are aware of their obligation to remain impartial at all times, including when using social media.

Read the draft revised Code of Practice (PDF).

For reference you can read the current Code of Practice (PDF).

Questions

  • Do you have any views on the draft revised Code of Practice?
  • Are there any other amendments you would like to see to the Code of Practice?

To respond email: EAConsultation@electoralcommission.org.uk

Publications