A trio of very welcome election law changes on the way

Postal ballot paper being postedThe Queen’s Speech mentioned a Bill to introduce individual electoral registration (see this post if you’re not sure why individual electoral registration is a good thing). It also made vague reference to other electoral administration reforms. Now I’ve read the proposed Bill and seen what they are, I’m rather pleased – as they include three things I’ve often raised in previous election law consultations and on this blog.

First, extending the timetable for Parliamentary by-elections. As I’ve written before about this issue:

The average length of Parliamentary by-election campaign has shrunk by four weeks since the 1970s, sharply narrowing the chance for the public to find out about the candidates presented to them and stifling openness in the candidate selection processes which frequently now have to be run at break-neck pace …

At a time when nominally all parts of the electoral system are deeply concerned with increasing public interest and involvement in our elections, slashing the length of election campaigns runs in completely the opposite direction.

I understand the situation of those who decide to move the writ increasingly quickly, whichever party they are from. They are working fully within the law and, given the law gives them discretion to choose when to move the writ, choosing the date that best suits your own party is understandable. I’ve given advice on this basis myself in the past, particularly for local by-elections.

But there comes a point where everyone should take a step back and ask whether it’s right that the rules are written this way.

Parliament-willing*, the rules soon won’t be.

Second, introducing powers to cut the pay for Returning Officers if they don’t do their job properly. This was first tried in the AV referendum and is now to be extended more widely. It deals with the current situation where even losing parts of the marked register from two different constituencies and failing to count the votes properly does not stop payment in full to a Returning Officer.

Third, people will in future be told if their postal ballot has been rejected. I’ve called for this in the past as informing such failed postal voters would have two important effects. It would help flush out cases of attempted fraud (‘what do you mean my postal vote was rejected? I never applied for one!’) and it would also protect the innocent against losing their vote.

Currently if someone makes a mistake when applying for a postal vote – such as by putting a typo in their date of birth – but then gives their correct date of birth when voting by post, their vote will be rejected as the information does not match. However as they are not told, they do not discover there is a problem and so if their application was for a permanent postal vote, votes at future elections will also carry on being rejected without the voter ever finding out that their votes are not counting.

Three good and overdue reforms.

* The atheist democrat’s equivalent of God-willing.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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  • tony dawson 13th May '12 - 5:38pm

    The Parliamentary by-election rule change is to be welcomed (although it should also be accompanied by a massive reduction in expenditure limits). So is the postal vote rejection/notification rule change. But individual voter registration is an appalling idea. ALL residents of any dwelling should be jointly and severally liable for making sure that all residents (and ONLY all residents) are listed.

  • There needs to be an election law consolidation act, even more so now. Returning Officers have to work under numerous pieces of electoral legislation, which makes the job even more tortuous and confusing, and therefore prone to errors.

  • Martin Pierce 14th May '12 - 11:11am

    Bravo for these proposals in the Queens Speech. And although individual registration may well be quite difficult to implement it is the right thing to do therefore the sensible thing is to plan it properly not give up because it might be hard in my view

  • Tony Greaves 15th May '12 - 10:28pm

    Individual registration is right in principle. It is not impossible in practice. TGhe right to vote is a precious part of being a citizen and should not be at the mercy of other people or at the risk of being stolen.

    Tony Greaves

  • Anthony Dunn 16th May '12 - 3:04pm

    Is there any clarity on the circumstances whereby Returning Officers get their pay docked? In Brent, we routinely spend all night waiting for the Count to start and it then meanders at the most glacial pace imaginable – and that is not because massive care is being taken to ensure accuracy. What scope is there for compulsory training of Returning Officers and their deputies so that bog standard processes like the Count can become much more efficiently run and deliver more timely results?

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