Report: 23 June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union

Management and delivery of the referendum

The European Union Referendum Act 2015 provided that the CCO could appoint a Regional Counting Officer for each of the eleven electoral regions in Great Britain used for European Parliamentary elections, comprising nine regions in England and Scotland and Wales. Gibraltar was included in the South West electoral region. The Act provided that Northern Ireland was a single voting area for which the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland was the Counting Officer. This regional management structure was used to manage the EU referendum in the 382 counting areas.

In order to provide greater clarity and ensure better alignment with arrangements in the rest of the UK, we recommend that Northern Ireland should be designated as an electoral region for future UK-wide referendums.

It is expected that the outcome of the referendum will mean that the UK will no longer hold elections to the European Parliament, and that this regional structure will therefore no longer have a statutory basis.

Given that the structure in place for this referendum worked so effectively to deliver a significant national poll, there would be a risk introduced to the delivery of any future national referendum, potentially with a shorter time period in which to prepare for it, if this structure or something similar (potentially non-statutory) were not to be retained.

We are satisfied that the Chair of the Electoral Commission was the most appropriate person to act as the Chief Counting Officer for this referendum. This will be reviewed by the Commission before each UK-wide referendum to be held under PPERA in future.

We commissioned two academics to carry out a separate, independent evaluation of the role of the CCO and the Electoral Commission and their approach to the management of the poll, which has been published on our website. Feedback from RCOs and COs was very positive about the role of the CCO and the Electoral Commission in the management and delivery of the referendum.

For referendums which take place only in Scotland or Wales, we recognise that the Chair of the Electoral Commission may not be the most appropriate person to act as the Chief Counting Officer. For example, the Convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland was the Chief Counting Officer for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. For referendums which take place only in Northern Ireland, PPERA specifies that the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland would be the Chief Counting Officer.

There were a number of administrative issues which affected a proportionately small number of voters at the EU referendum. The technical problems experienced by the Government’s voter registration website from 10.15pm on Tuesday 7 June were not resolved until around the time of the deadline for registering to vote in the referendum at midnight. This led to the decision to extend the deadline for registration until midnight on Thursday 9 June.

The Government should publish the independent assessment of what happened as quickly as possible to ensure that the website is able to cope with stress caused by significantly high traffic in advance of future polls. Additionally, introducing the ability for electors to check online whether they are correctly registered before submitting their application would assist the situation by reducing the number of duplicate applications.

The current electoral timetable, with the voter registration deadline set as it is, continues to present particular challenges in terms of ensuring the timely delivery and return of overseas postal votes, which of course will vary between countries. The UK Government’s proposed Votes for Life Bill (which will scrap the current 15 year time
limit on the voting rights of British citizens living overseas for UK parliamentary elections) is likely to increase the pressure on the postal voting timetable, which is already more compressed compared to a referendum. It highlights the need for the UK Government to work with the Commission and others to identify changes to improve access to the voting process for overseas electors. Any changes requiring legislation should be included in the Votes for Life Bill to ensure a coordinated approach.

Other issues related to the receipt of poll cards and postal votes by ineligible electors; and concerns about the use of pencils to mark ballot papers.