Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dangers remain with electoral registration changes: Norwich and Cambridge could be amongst the most affected areas

The government is planning to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) in June 2014.  A new report and data released from the Electoral Commission suggests its implementation still poses a risk for British democracy.

My earlier research on the likely effects of IER suggested that this would:
  • improve confidence in elections, but
  • result in a considerable decline in levels of electoral registration, a concern when electoral registration levels are already low in the UK.  This would affect particular groups such as students, the mobile and young disproportionately.
  • lead to a considerable increase in the costs of running UK elections.  
  • lead to issues with data management and a need for staff training
The government is trying to prevent a decline though 'data-matching' - use the government's existing records such as the DWP database to improve re-register people automatically.  A new report from the Electoral Commission has said that plans to implement IER are 'on track' but there remains risks:
  • 52% of electoral officials are concerned that they will not have enough money to implement data-matching effectively
  • a system for allowing online registration has not been fully tested yet
  • although re-registration rates were higher than last thought, there are uneven regional effects ranging from 46.9% in Kensington and Chelsea to 86.4%.  'Students, young adults and private renters' are also less likely to be re-registered.  
Which areas are most affected?

I had a quick look at some of the Electoral Commission's data on which areas were the most and least affected.  What percentage of people are on the electoral register but cannot be matched against the DWP database?  In my own local area of the East of England, the local authorities most/least affected are:

Local Authority / Percentage of registered electorate that could not be matched

Cambridge 36.7%  (33,205 people)
Norwich 26.2% (26,941 people)
Watford 22.3%
Luton 20.6%
Colchester 21.1%
Tendering 13.0%
Broadland 13.8%
Castle Point 13.0%
Rochford 12.8%

The breakdown by wards gives us more detail and shows how students are a key group who might be affected.  Amongst the highest wards were:

Market (Cambridge) 75.2% (4813 people)
Wivenhoe Cross (Colchester) 55.2% (3757 people)
University (Norwich) 46.5% (3521 people)

Implementation is everything when it comes to government policy and it is no different with elections.  There needs to be adequate funding available for electoral officials in local government if British elections are not to be adversely affected.  These reforms come at a time when budgets are already being squeezed because of public spending cuts and the number of elections that held is increasing.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Electoral registration changes hit a set-back: A new way forward

There was bad news for British democracy on Wednesday.  The new system of electoral registration being introduced in Britain next year hit a set-back.

Soon, every citizen in Britain will need to register individually and provide key personal identifiers in order to register.  When this was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a significant decline in levels of electoral registration.  Research has suggested that a further decline will occur when implemented in Britain too.  This is especially troubling since one in five of eligible voters are already thought to not be registered.  I wrote a blog about the changes on the Democratic Audit website earlier in the week.  But things are moving quickly. 

One idea that the government has been exploring to prevent any drop is data-mining.  This involves registration officers using other government databases, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Student Loans Company etc., to find the names and addresses of people who are not on the register.  They can then be written to and invited to register.

The government and Electoral Commission published reports on the effectiveness of data-matching pilots on Wednesday.  This or its consequences was not picked up by any media, as far as I am aware, perhaps because there was no Electoral Commission or Cabinet office press release.  Sadly for British democracy, the news is not good. 

The first thing to say is that the pilots were not a perfect experiment.  The Electoral Commission noted that registration officers were hindered by ‘delays and… [needed] a greater level of support’ from the Cabinet Office (p.2).  However, the headlines are that:
  1. The databases used produced low levels of new electoral registrations.  If managed differently, there might have been greater returns, the Electoral Commission suggested and the evaluations might have been able to be more certain about whether these were really new registrations or not.
  2.  It was very expensive.  Registration officers therefore could not absorb this practice into their everyday practice without significantly more money.  Cabinet Office did not publish their expenditure (p.4) so there might be more costs involved in managing the process centrally. This comes at a time of government spending cuts.
The Electoral Commission has therefore concluded that the pilot does ‘not justify the national roll out’ of data-matching.  This means that we may still be set for a ‘car-crash’ drop in levels of electoral registration.

We should not be hasty in casting data-mining aside.  After all, it did find some new voters.  And what is the monetary value of a registered voter or a vote?  Whatever the state of the public finances, democracy must not be compromised. However, there is clearly a need to explore further ways to boost voter registration.  

A British Motor Voter Act?

One way that I have suggested that this can be achieved is for the UK to learn from the US experience.  In the US in the 1990s a law was passed that expanded the number of locations and opportunities whereby eligible citizens could apply to register to vote. In particular, citizens were to be given a voter registration application when they applied for or renewed a driver’s license, or when applying for (or receiving) services at certain other public offices. Today, a huge proportion of new registrants use this mechanism to register to vote in the US. Data from the US Electoral Assistance Commission shows that 37.1 per cent of registration forms were submitted via motor vehicle agencies in 2010. Over 18 million citizens used this method in 2008. Subsequent empirical studies showed how this (and other methods) could improve registration rates (see here for an overview). Researchers later argued that the effect on registration could have been greater had federal agencies worked harder to enforce the Act.

This might be a more promising way to improve voter registration.  When we register for a drivers licence (or access another government service) could a box be provided for us to tick so that we can have our name added to the electoral register?  Electoral registration officers could then check and update their records.
No doubt, that would cost money.  But elections and democratic representation are worth it.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Individual electoral registration: a car crash on the horizon for British democracy?

I have been writing and blogging about the individual electoral registration a lot over the past few two years or so.  The legislation has now been passed and we edge nearer and nearer to it becoming a reality.

The Democratic Audit have published the latest of my blogs today, which considers the implementation stages of the changes that could have significant consequences for British democracy.

The blog is available here:  Individual electoral registration still needs a lot of work, if it is not to be a car crash for British democracy

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Why are failures of electoral management everywhere?

Examples of errors and incompetence in the organisation of elections can now be readily found in many democracies around the world.  Consider:
  • In the UK 2010 general election, a number of polling stations run out of ballot papers or had queues which meant that citizens were unable to cast their vote.

  • A recent report on the running of the Canadian elections showed that over 500 serious errors were made, on average, per electoral district in the 2011 federal elections.  These were so serious that the election result was initially annulled by a judge.
  • Reports from the Malaysian 2013 elections that officials were not shaking the bottles of indelible ink before marking voters fingers.  The result was that some could wash off the ink and vote twice. (See the Video on the right) 

What is going on?  Surely running an election can't be that difficult?  After all, many democracies have been doing this for years without making such terrible errors.

Last week I gave a conference paper at the Annual Workshop on Electoral Integrity at Harvard University on why electoral officials are increasingly having problems.  I interviewed many officials in the UK about the challenges that they face.  It seems, that running elections is becoming increasingly difficult. Challenges in the UK include:

  • Greater legal complexity - a greater diversity and number of elections makes them harder to administer
  • More actors involved in elections - devolution and the fragmentation of central government makes elections more difficult to co-ordinate
  • Increased population movements - increased immigration and high levels of internal migration make the register difficult to compile.
  • The rise of social media - errors are reported more quickly and loudly because of the rise of Twitter etc
Elections have therefore become much more difficult to administer in the UK and it is more difficult to maintain high levels of satisfaction amongst citizens with electoral services.

Some of these changes may be specific to the UK, but most can be found in many established democracies.  This means that concerns about electoral integrity are no longer the preserve of new and emerging democracies.  They are likely to be found in the backyard of the established democracies that were once thought of as exemplars to the world for the practice of elections.

Ballot papers from the 2010 British General election
The paper can be downloaded here
For information on the conference and other papers click here 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

US Supreme Court to further ignite the politics of election administration?

Voting rights rally in New York, 2011
The US Supreme Court could today set in motion the process of striking down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

This rules that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination need to get permission from the federal government before enacting changes to voting procedures.  It was a historic victory for the civil rights movement.

However, Shelby County, Alabama claim that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it reauthorised Section 5, which was only ever supposed to be temporary.

It also claims that such restrictions are not necessary because black voter registration and turnout rates now are high and that black elected officials are commonplace.

However, if the Act is overturned, expect the politics of election law to become more, not less furious.

Defenders of Section 5 cite continued forms of discrimination.  Section 5 was used to prevent changes to early voting and introduce identification requirements in these key states.  As Rick Hasan notes, if Section 5 goes, 'expect to see more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.'

The US Supreme Court to hear Shelby v Holder
This will inevitably lead to a backlash from the Obama administration, the Democratic party and the civil rights movement.  There were continued problems in the 2012 US Presidential election, which the president promised to fix.  He recently announced the formation of the 'bipartisan' Bauer-Ginsberg commission in his State of the Union speech to improve voting procedures.

Expect the ever-unresolved politics of election administration in the US to rumble on....

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

How could the PCC elections have been better run?

The UK is having its first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) tomorrow, (Thursday 15th November). Citizens will have the chance to elect an official who will have the powers to:
  • appoint and dismiss chief constables
  • set out a five-year police and crime plan 
  • determine local policing priorities
Teresa May has claimed that they will 'be a voice for local people'.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, there is a real concern that their democratic role will be undermined by low turnout.  So what could have been done?  

Ways increase turnout - lessons from academic research

Low turnout is a problem because elected Commissioners may not be representative of broader public opinion.  It also reduces the legitimacy of Commissioners and perhaps their effectiveness too.

In some senses, low turnout would not be a surprise because voter turnout is generally lower in 'second order' and 'third order' elections.  Citizens vote in elections that they consider to be more important, such as general elections.  Turnout would probably have been low, whatever.

However, based on established academic research government could have done much more to avoid low turnout.  It could have:
  • Hold the election at the weekend, not a Thursday.  Why?
    • Some democracies hold elections at weekends and research suggests that this helps turnout.
  • Better still, allow voting over several days.  Why?
    • As the US election showed, many US states allow voting weeks in advance.  Why not allow voting to take place over several days?  Research shows how this can improve turnout.
  • Provide more information about candidates. Why? 
    • As I said before, research shows that providing free-post leaflets to candidates helps boost turnout.  The government decided against this and instead set up a website.  This is problematic because a significant amount of the UK still doesn't have internet access.  A telephone line for the public has been set up, but it has received criticisms.
  • Hold the elections in May.  Why?
    • November is a bad time for electoral officials who are busy updating the electoral register.  This means that they their resources are drained and they cannot invest in public awareness activities, as they might at other points in the year.  I interviewed many electoral administrators and they were concerned about a November election.
    • More importantly, research shows that combining elections can help boost turnout.  If elections were combined with local or other elections in May, turnout might have been much higher.  Ideally, combine it with a general election.
    • There have been some claims that November's 'early and dark nights' reduce turnout, I'm not aware of any research that demonstrates this.  But please correct me if I'm wrong.  
  • Plan better.
    • Research shows that errors made in the way that elections are run, voters' interactions with poll workers etc., can undermine confidence.  The Electoral Commission issued some early warnings that planning had not progressed sufficiently at the earlier stages.  There are some reports of leaflets not being delivered on time, problems with the telephone helpful for voters and confusion about who can and cannot be a candidate.  Some teething problems are inevitable, but they might have been avoided, and won't help turnout and public trust.
Electing Commissioners on the Cheap

The bottom line seems to be that the election could have been improved if more was spent on running it. Understandably, the government will be keen to keep costs down.   Primarily, they will be concerned about arguments from the Labour Party that the money spent on the election could have been spent on more police officers.

However, if we are to have PCCs then it is important that they are not elected on the cheap.  It undermines the eventual Commissioners, it undermines the police, and it undermines democracy

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Was Tony Blair a great prime minister?

Earlier in the summer, there was some speculation that Tony Blair may yet dramatically return as Prime Minister.

When asked by the Evening Standard whether he would want another term he said 'sure'.

Some British Prime Ministers have returned to office after leaving power.  These include Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson.  Most recent leaders, as Kevin Theakston notes, tend to end up doing a variety of other things.

But was Tony Blair any good the first time around?

This is obviously a very controversial question.  For some he will be remembered as a 'war monger' because of his decision to invade Iraq; for others an apologist for Thatcherism, for dropping many of Labour's left wing policies; for others the successful moderniser of the Labour party who presided over a successive years of economic prosperity and growth in Britain, and whose achievements also included peace in Northern Ireland.

There has been very little explicit scholarly work which has sort to evaluate Prime Ministerial performance.  This stands in great contrast to the the US where assessing American Presidents has span many pages.

Dr. Jim Buller (University of York) and I have just published a new article on how political scientists should assess British Prime Ministers.  Our method provides a framework for assessing whether they are successful at winning office and maintaining a sense of governing competence, particularly on the key issue of the economy.

The article considers the case of Tony Blair and argues that he was very successful at this.  His party won three full parliamentary terms in a row, a feat not achieved by any other Labour leadership clique. Moreover, it significantly altered the methods by which the party fought elections, reforms that remain in place to this day.

Similar points might be made about the criterion of governing competence. Not only did Blair and his colleagues re-establish Labour's reputation in this area, but some of the policy changes put in place to fulfil this objective (particularly Bank of England independence) now have a lasting legacy.

Although Blair failed to devise a consistent and compelling narrative for New Labour, which had a significant impact on the climate of British politics, the party did win the political argument on important issues, such as greater expenditure on public services.

Party management was arguably Blair's least strong suit in the sense that he was unable to prevent the splits between leader and rank and file that had plagued his successors. But overall, Blair's leadership deserves a very high place in any future league table of British prime ministers.

It has to be said that a Blair return is some way off.  Ed Miliband has built up a lead in the polls and the questions about his leadership have retreated.  If he loses the next general election then he may not survive as party leader and we should expect a leadership contest, but there will be plenty of younger leadership candidates in the frame if that happens.  Unfortunately for Blair one poll has suggested that Labour support would drop (except in the South-East) if he was to become leader again.

So was Tony Blair a great Prime Minister?  Here are some of his most famous moments, to help you decide.