Friday, May 31, 2019

#DeniedMyVote - what happened?

In the European Parliament elections last week, a number of EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom reported that they were unable to vote here, finding that paperwork hadn't been processed, their names were crossed off the register and officials were telling them to vote in their "home country". What exactly happened and why?

I have to admit this is probably the most obscure part of election law in regards to registration. It only comes up at one election that comes along every five years and only applies to one small section of the electorate. Consequently it's not something well known about by political activists or often handed down from agent to agent. As a result the rationale behind the procedure is obscure, but this post is my best bet.

The arrangements seem to stem from EU law and work as follows:
  • All citizens of European Union member states who meet the other qualifying criteria (age, residency etc...) are eligible to vote for the European Parliament.
  • It is assumed as a default that they will be exercising their vote in their country of citizenship (called "home country", though many object to this term).
  • Those resident in other EU member states are assumed to still be exercising their franchise in their country of citizenship, whether by postal vote, voting locally at a facility run by their embassy or by travelling to their country of citizenship.
  • Those who wish to vote in their country of residence are required to make an additional declaration that they will be exercising their vote in their country of residence and not in their country of citizenship.
  • EU citizens resident in another country who qualify for that country's domestic franchise (in the case of the UK this is Cypriot, Irish and Maltese citizens including anyone with dual nationality with one of the other 24 EU member states) are treated as domestic, not EU, voters and so do not have to go through this process.
As set out in my previous post #DeniedMyVote - The position across the EU, at least most EU member states operate a system that requires EU citizens resident in them to take active steps in order to be able to transfer their European Parliament franchise to their country of residence. Some seem to incorporate it into general registration, some have a specific registration for EU citizens and/or European Parliament elections and some have a stand-alone procedure for existing voters on the register. The United Kingdom has the last method.

Thus an EU citizen resident in the United Kingdom has to complete an additional form. For voters in Great Britain this is the "European Union citizens – European Parliament voter registration form (GB)" known as the "UC1" form, though confusingly that term does not actually appear on the form making it harder to search for. For voters in Northern Ireland it's the "European Union citizens - European Parliament voter registration form (NI)" form or "EC6", a term which does actually appear on the form.

(Amongst the many confusions seen on this, frustratingly some British councils have been talking about "EC6" forms. I hope nobody was given the wrong one to fill in.)

It seems the form has to be returned to election authorities in the country of citizenship. With many countries having elections run at the municipal level, not just the United Kingdom, that's an awful lot of agencies involved to screw things up. It's not clear if the agency in the country of citizenship has to sign things off before the EU citizen can be added to the relevant roll at the other end, or if the local agency can go straight ahead. But this makes it impossible to set things up for people to sign at polling stations and vote there and then.

Much of the mess originates in this entire procedure being little known about and understood, rather bureaucratic (especially if the forms need to be processed at another agency in a different country before the EU citizen can be admitted to the local roll) and easy to mess up. It's also clear that a lot of confusion has been generated by people who don't know the difference between being on the register and having had the updated category allocated. Much of the wording is focused on the former and reports suggest many people inadvertently got confirmation of the wrong thing. Also there is no actual legal requirement for local election services to send out the forms to EU citizens on the register.

However many people report sending the forms in or even hand delivering them before the deadline yet finding they were not processed in time. This is a clear failing, although it's likely to impact at the local election services end.

The reason for people's names appearing crossed out on the register is clear. As explained in my previous post Who can vote for what bodies?, there is a joint electoral register covering six different categories of voters across combinations of three different franchises. When a voter is ineligible to vote in a particular election, their name is crossed out so they cannot vote polling stations but the staff can see the reason and explain.

Overall this system is cumbersome and a mess, but being an EU wide thing it seems hard to fix. Obviously leaving the EU will resolve it in an instance, but for other countries where similar problems have been reported there will probably need to be modifications to make the forms more directly accessible - maybe incorporating them into basic registration?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

#DeniedMyVote - The position across the EU

This is a long information post. It's to support my next post looking at the details of how European Union citizens resident in the UK can vote here in European Parliament elections. As part of this I look at what the requirements are across the whole European Union.

In a lot of the talk about #DeniedMyVote there has been conflicting claims about whether or not other EU member states have similar requirements of EU citizens having to complete additional forms in order to be able to cast their European Parliament vote in their country of residence. Rather than trading anecdotes, let's have a quick look at what the actual procedures are.

The EUROPA - Your Europe European Union website has information for EU nationals residing in countries other than their country of citizenship at Your Europe > Citizens > Residence formalities > Elections abroad > European elections. Although not exhaustive, there's information about how to register to vote for the European elections in each member state. So just how many states have a declaration process requiring non-national EU citizens to complete extra steps in order to register for the European Parliament elections? The answer is at least most of them:

"...voters must be registered on the European electoral roll in Austria at least 72 days before the European elections."
Nothing specific about transfers though the term "European electoral roll" suggests a specific franchise roll instead of a combined one. The page links through to the Austrian government site but only in German.

"...non-Belgian nationals must:
  • be registered on the electoral roll in Belgium
  • not be registered to vote in their home country
To inform the authorities where they will vote for European Parliamentary elections, non-Belgian EU nationals should contact the Belgian municipality where they reside no later than 31 January 2019."

"When voting for Members of the European Parliament from the Republic of Bulgaria, citizens of other EU Member States are entered on the electoral roll on the basis of a standard statement to the municipal administration at their address of residence in Bulgaria no later than 40 days before election day."

"In order to vote in the Republic of Croatia nationals of other EU Member States must apply to the office responsible for their place of permanent or temporary residence in Croatia to be entered in the electoral roll, and must do so no later than 30 days before the date of the elections.
They must include the following with their application to be entered in the electoral roll:
  • a declaration stating their nationality, their place of permanent residence in the Republic of Croatia, where applicable, and the place or constituency in their home Member State in whose electoral roll their name was last entered
  • a declaration that they will vote in Croatia only"

"To inform the authorities where they will vote for European Parliament elections, foreign EU citizens should contact the Ministry of Interior."

"The EP election electoral roll is managed by Czech municipal authorities. As an EU national, you can be placed on the electoral roll if:
  • you submit a request
  • you submitted a request in the previous EP elections and have not asked to be deleted from the electoral roll since
  • you are on the electoral roll for municipal elections and ask to have your information transferred to the EP electoral roll."

There's not a lot of text on the site. However if we follow the link through to the Danish government we find:
"If you are an EU citizen and reside in Denmark, you can only be enrolled in the electoral register for the election in Denmark upon application. The reason is that EU citizens who live in a member state other than their home country can usually choose if they want to participate in the elections in their home country or their country of residence. However, you can only vote in one place, and thus you cannot vote both in the elections in Denmark and in your home country.

If you want to vote in the elections in Denmark, you must fill out the application form (see the application form below) and enclose documentation for the information stated on the application form."

"To inform the authorities where they will vote for European elections or stand as a candidate, EU citizens residing in Estonia must first submit a one-time application to be entered in the polling list. The application shall be submitted to the chief processor of the population register not later than on the thirtieth day before election day."

"EU citizens need to enroll with the voting register to vote, for the first time, in Finland in European elections.
They should contact the local register office and file a written notification 80 days before the election day at the latest to inform that they wish to vote in the elections in Finland."
Again there's a link through to the domestic government website with a bit more:
"When a person has been entered in the voting register in Finland, the Finnish authority will notify the relevant authority in his or her home state of the registration, and his or her personal data will be removed from the electoral register of this state. According to the EU Act concerning the elections, no one may vote in more than one Member State of the European Union in the same election. EU citizens may vote either in their home state or in the state they live in."

Link to the declaration form.

"When registering on the list of EU citizens, you should provide a written statement that you will exercise your right to vote in France only."

"Foreign EU citizens should contact their German municipality of residence to inform the authorities where they will vote in European Parliament elections."

"To register on special electoral rolls, you must:
  • fill in a formal declaration form
Voting in the European elections is compulsory for everybody on the electoral roll. If you don't vote, you may be sent to prison for a period of 1 month to a year.
If you wish to vote for political parties and candidates from your home EU country, you may contact its Embassy or Consulate in Greece."

The information for Hungary doesn't seem to cover this. It describes how to register but it's not clear if this is exclusively for the European Parliament elections (and thus has the declaration built in?) or if there's a more general process. There's a link to the National Election Office website but it's in Hungarian.

"To inform the authorities where they will vote for European Parliament elections, foreign EU citizens should contact the relevant local authority in Ireland or visit the Register of Electors website."
Ireland appears to require registration for each election. The form for EU citizens (other than British) includes both registration and a declaration. The declaration form needs to be officially witnessed.

"You must inform the Italian national authorities where you intend to vote in the European Parliament elections when you register on the electoral roll in the municipality where you live. When registering, you must declare that you will vote only in Italy."

"Foreign EU citizens need to register to vote in the European elections (foreign EU citizens need to be permanent residents of Lithuania 65 days before election day) and to submit a formal declaration that they want to vote in Lithuania.
In order to be registered, the deadline to submit the above-mentioned formal declaration is 25 days before election day.
The rules to be included into electoral roll are the same as for Lithuanian nationals, but foreign EU citizens need to submit the above mentioned declaration form.
To inform the authorities where they will vote for European elections, foreign EU citizens should contact the Central Electoral Commission of the Republic of Lithuania."

There isn't specific information here but there are links to the registrar's website:
"In support of their application for registration, nationals from other EU Member States must present the following:
  • a formal declaration specifying:
  • * their nationality, their date and place of birth, their last address in their country of origin and their address in Luxembourg;
  • * where applicable, on the electoral register in which local area or district in the country of origin they were last registered;
  • * that they will only exercise their right to vote in elections for the European Parliament in Luxembourg;
  • * that they have not been stripped of the right to vote in their country of origin by individual court order or by administrative decision. These decisions must be subject to a judicial review. If this is the case, the interested party must mention that the loss of the right to vote is due to the residence conditions imposed by their country of origin;
  • * a current valid identity document.
False declarations are subject to penalties."

"When you register to vote, you will need to specify whether you want to vote in Malta or in your home country. If you choose to vote in Malta, the Electoral Commission will inform your home country accordingly."

No information on the site at all, just a link to their election agency which doesn't say anything about this either:

"EU citizens who have not previously been placed on the electoral roll should apply to the municipal authority responsible for the place where they are domiciled.
A copy of their passport or other form of ID and a written declaration (indicating the number and date of the residence card issued by the provincial governor and the address and the constituency where the EU citizen is on the electoral roll in their country of origin) should be attached to the application.
The declaration should state that the applicant wishes to exercise their electoral rights in Poland and has not been deprived of electoral rights in their country of origin.
EU citizens who are not Polish citizens should contact the municipal or city authority responsible for their place of residence in order to make it known where they intend to vote."

"EU citizens can register with the registry commissions (comissões recenseadoras) or the Aliens and Borders Department (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, SEF). They are then registered in the constituency corresponding to their place of residence as stated in their valid residence document (título de residência).
For this purpose they must:
  • submit a valid identity document
  • provide proof of legal residence in Portugal, in the form of an EU citizen's registration certificate (Certificado de Registo de cidadão da UE) or an EU citizen's certificate of permanent residence.
Voting is voluntary, so there is no penalty of any kind for not doing so.
However, voting simultaneously in the European elections in both Portugal and another EU country is punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to 50 days."

"As an EU citizen, you have to register in a special electoral roll to be able to vote in Romania. You need to submit your request in writing to the mayor of the place of your domicile, accompanied by a copy of a valid identity document."
Otherwise nothing about declarations but it's possible the application for the special roll incorporates it."

"Citizens of other EU countries need to register to vote in the European elections. The municipality will add electors who are citizens of another EU country to the electoral list on request. This application must be submitted by the EU citizen to the municipality in which they reside no later than 40 days before the day of the election. Otherwise, they will no longer have the right to enroll on the electoral list."
Again there's nothing about declarations.

"EU citizens need to register in the Municipal Register and also formally express their wish to exercise the right to vote in Spain so that they can be put on the electoral roll of foreigners residing in Spain (CERE) for European elections."

"To vote in the European elections, you must be  
  • an EU citizen registered in Sweden 30 days before the elections. You must also inform the county authority (länstyrelse) that you wish to vote in Sweden rather than in the country of which you are a citizen."

United Kingdom:
"UK and EU citizens in the UK need to register to vote in European Parliament elections."
And nothing further on the site but a link through to the government website:
"If you're a citizen of an EU country (other than the UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus) who's resident in the UK, you can vote in either the UK or your home country.
If you want to vote in the UK you must be registered to vote. Contact electoral authorities in your home country (where you're a citizen) if you want to vote there."
Information about declarations is noticeably absent.

Most of these reference some kind of formal procedure for an EU citizen to formally declare they're exercising their European Parliament in their country of residence and not of their country of citizenship. (The use of the term "home country" for the country of citizenship has caused some outrage on social media but is used so often as to be a standard legal term.) Not every country's information mentions it, and it's possible that some of the countries which have compulsory voting, whether enforced (Belgium and Luxembourg) or not (Bulgaria and Greece) invert the process. But it seems clear the standard assumption is that an EU citizen will be voting in their country of citizenship and they must take active steps to be able to vote in their country of residence.

This is so widespread it seems clear this is a requirement of EU Law, even though hardly anyone has identified the specific law. It's also notable that in a lot of countries the declaration is a separate procedure from registering for local government elections (and, confusingly, some seem to make registration for European Parliament elections a separate affair altogether).

Few state what happens to the declarations, but the information for Finland is clear that the declaration is reported back to the country of citizen's electoral authorities to prevent them exercising the vote there. This means it would be impossible to operate this procedure at polling stations and that this was not an option the UK could have adopted, despite some calling for it.

So overall this procedure seems to be a creation of the EU rather than the UK, showing that those making wild claims about "voter suppression" don't know what they're talking about. It's an administrative arrangement that sounds good in principle (and could indeed be adopted by the UK against concerns about people registering & voting in two places at once) but is a bureaucratic quagmire that isn't well publicised (I've seen claims made that it doesn't exist in countries that have it) or processed well.

Finally it's notable that in a lot of EU countries voter registration is handled by local government, just as it is here. This can't make for easy exchange of information between countries.

#DeniedMyVote - Postal votes

In a further post I'll be looking at the problems EU citizens residing in the UK had with voting in the European elections last week but for now a quick look at the other reported element, postal ballot papers arriving too late to be returned in time.

Postal voting has been around for a while but has steadily grown over the years, particularly after 2001 when postal voting on demand was introduced. (Previously it was only available to those with good reason for being unable to get to their designated local polling station, such as employment, education, ill health, holidays or living on an island without its own polling station.) Note that provision is more restricted in Northern Ireland. It is very unlikely that the on demand provision will be curtailed again, not least because many political activists spend general election polling days outside their own home area and postal voting allows them to still vote with ease.

At the same as postal voting has increased, postal services have continued to decline. Long gone are the days when a person could receive a letter at the breakfast table inviting them to afternoon tea somewhere in town and have the time to compose and send a reply that would be received by the host in time to prepare. Collections and deliveries are less frequent, such that it now takes longer to send something out and get a reply back in time.

Elections are run on a surprisingly tight timetable, with just four weeks between the close of nominations and polling day, with a further requirement that all votes must be with the local Returning Officer's team by the close of polling. There is limited time in which to get the ballot papers printed and sent off.

Postal votes are normally dispatched around eleven working days before polling day, which is generally enough time domestically although it would help if election services across the country aimed for better consistency of expectations. There have been many cases of people asking for one due to a holiday but it doesn't arrive before they go away despite their social media being full of others casting their postal votes.

However international postal services are another matter and the situation is not helped by election services that use consolidation services to send a whole bundle to a remailer to send on at cheaper local rates. There are countries that no longer have universal daily collections and deliveries (if they ever did), and indeed many such countries only require their own postal votes to be sent & post marked by the close of polling, not received. Reply envelopes may not have the quickest postage option on them. As a result many people have reported receiving their postal vote packs far too late to be able to return them in time to be counted and some have even reported receiving their votes after the declaration of results.

The short amount of time from confirmation the European elections were taking place to polling meant that many were caught unprepared (and as very few local government ballot papers are sent overseas there weren't off the shelf contracts in place for the council elections that could be adapted) and the length of the ballot paper would have added to delay because of the limited number of printers that can handle it, but reports of overseas postal votes arriving too late have come up in other elections and referendums that have had rather more time to prepare. However they haven't received so much attention but this is not something can be easily ignored or dismissed as a one-off problem.

It is possible that the UK's postal services will be further curtailed in years to come, placing greater pressure on the tight election timetable if postal votes can't be sent out and returned in good time. Various solutions exist, ranging from internet voting to a longer period between nominations and polling to allowing postal votes to arrive after polling day at the cost of instant overnight final results, but all bring their own drawbacks and would provoke resistance.

The overseas votes are already facing this problem and again some solution could be found, but it's hard to see the timetable being extended or more radical solutions such as internet voting being introduced purely for them. Some countries have overseas voting at embassies, but they often don't have the requirement for all ballot papers to be in with the local Returning Officer by the close of poll. Perhaps embassies could be given the task of printing and dispatching ballot papers locally as a means to cut down on the transit time (and maybe even receiving them, though I don't know how workable a solution that is).

Longer term a number of problems with overseas voting may be better solved by introducing dedicated ex pat constituencies (as already happen in other countries) that could have their own timetables and arrangements rather than being at the mercy of the domestic timetable.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Who can vote for what bodies?

Amongst the many comments about the elections this week and the problems many EU Citizens raised was the fact that their names appeared on the paper registers at polling stations but crossed through. Why was this?

The basic answer is that the election register combines six different categories of voters with differing entitlements to vote in different elections. All qualified voters who have registered and can vote in at least one set of elections appear are on the list but those ineligible to vote at the election in question at the polling station in question are crossed out.

More detail required? Sure.

Broadly there are three different franchises in this country:
  • The local & devolved government franchise for electing councils, police & crime commissioners and devolved parliaments & assemblies.
  • The Westminster franchise for electing the House of Commons.
  • The European Parliament franchise for electing members of the European Parliament.
(I'll come to referendums later in the post.)

Due to the different voting entitlements of ex pats, EU citizens and members of the House of Lords there are six different categories of voters with various combinations of franchise. For operational simplicity a single electoral roll is maintained but has to indicate the differing eligibility. If you see a register you will note that some voters' names have letters next to them; these indicate the different categories. These are as follows:
  • (No letter) - Citizens of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries (including Cyprus and Malta) who have all three franchise.
  • E - Ex pat members of the House of Lords who have the European Parliament franchise only.
  • F - Ex pats who moved abroad from the United Kingdom in the last fifteen years who have the Westminster and European Parliament franchises (in the constituency of their last registered address) but not the local government franchise.
  • G - Citizens of other European Union countries (excluding the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta covered above) who only have the local government franchise unless they've completed a further stage...
  • K - Citizens of other European Union countries (excluding the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta covered above) who have completed, returned & had processed a formal declaration to state that they will be exercising their vote for the European Parliament in the United Kingdom and not in their country of citizenship, and thus have both the local government franchise and the European Parliament franchise.
  • L - Members of the House of Lords who have both the local government franchise and the European Parliament franchise but not the Westminster franchise for the House of Commons.
(The document for converting from "G" to "K" is called the UC1 form, although annoyingly not on the form itself, or the "European Union citizens – European Parliament voter registration form (GB)" in Great Britain and the EC6 form, a code that does appear on it, or the "EUROPEAN UNION CITIZENS - EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT VOTER REGISTRATION FORM (NI)" in Northern Ireland.)

There are also two letters relating to how votes cast:
  • A - Indicates a voter who has applied for a postal vote and thus cannot vote at the polling station.
  • P - Proxy - a vote has proxied their vote for someone else to cast it on their behalf.
To summarise by franchise:
  • Local & devolved government - (No letter), G, K, L
  • Westminster - (No letter), F
  • European Parliament - (No letter), E, F, K, L
Referendums usually use the same franchise as the relevant body in question though there have been some variations. Votes on various council matters or devolution use the local & devolved franchise. The AV and Brexit referendums used the Westminster franchise plus members of the House of Lords (E & L), with the latter also enfranchising voters in Gibraltar.

The standard election registers have all registered voters across the six categories listed. The copies for polling stations are printed so that all names appear but those unable to vote in a particular election are crossed out. As well as the categories of voters ineligible at the election, also crossed out are people with postal votes (A) and people on the register under the age of 18 on polling day.

This arrangement helps staff quickly identify the reason why a person will not be able to vote there, albeit at the expense of potentially confusing ineligible voters who may not understand why they can't vote when their name is on this list.

The problems relating to EU Citizens and the declaration forms to convert their category from G to K is such a big subject that it would take a separate post. However looking at some of the reported letters and phone calls, it seems that a lot of wording has not distinguished between someone appearing on the combined register for elections in general and having had the specifics processed for European Parliament elections.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

An Election Freepost FAQ

Updated 15/12/19: I've added another question that came up in the general election.
Updated 21/11/19: Information about elections to the European Parliament is no longer relevant. To keep it for historic purposes I've italicised the relevant text.

Over the past week or so a number of people have been posting on social media about leaflets from various political parties they've received, often with their name and address on them.

Officially called "Election Communications", these are election freepost leaflets. In some elections all candidates/parties are entitled to have one item delivered to all voters/households by Royal Mail. For many voters it may be the only thing they receive from a particular party/candidate.

Not everyone knows the ins and outs of them, so here's a quick set of Frequently Asked Questions and answers.

What elections have the freepost option?

Elections to the Westminster and European Parliaments.

For directly elected mayors the electoral authorities will directly send out a booklet containing multiple one or two page manifestos from all candidates who submitted them and paid the fee.

Local council elections and, if I recall correctly, police & crime commissioner elections don't have them. I forget what the provision is for the devolved parliaments.

Why have we only received leaflets from some parties?

The freepost is an option available to all parties and independent candidates, but not everyone makes use of it whilst some campaigners opt to only send out a limited amount to targeted voters and/or areas. For example in the 2011 AV referendum the Yes campaign (infamously) decided against doing a full delivery.

Why did this arrive after my postal vote?

It largely depends upon when the leaflets were delivered to Royal Mail. The final deadlines for submission are usually after the bulk of postal votes go out and the distribution is often staggered. Unaddressed freeposts (more on these below) are especially vulnerable to this but also some are sent in batches so the ones to postal voters arrive earlier; however not every party or candidate will have the most up to date postal vote list to hand.

How did [X] party get my address details?

Political parties and candidates are allowed access to the electoral register for election purposes, including sending literature to voters.

I am on the closed register so why am I receiving this?

The option to opt out of the "open" version of the register only applies to its commercial sale to marketing companies. Political parties and candidates have the full register.

I am a citizen of an EU country who cannot vote in general elections so why did I receive an addressed leaflet in a general election?

Citizens of EU member states (excluding the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta) resident in the UK can only vote in local & devolved and, if they complete the correct form and get it processed in time, EU Parliament elections. If they receive an addressed mailing the most likely reason is that a party has used the wrong franchise selection on their register database.

Why did only some of us in this home receive addressed leaflets? 
Why did we get different leaflets?

Some parties and candidates will try to maximise the effect of the freepost by sending more than one leaflet to a home wherever possible. A common tactic is to send a first leaflet to the first named person on the register for an address and then a second leaflet to the second named person. Other parties may have limited resources and will only send one leaflet per household but address it to a named voter to navigate shared letterboxes and the like.

Why is this leaflet addressed to someone I've never heard of?

Either they're a past resident at your address who is still listed there on the electoral register (or on an outdated one used by a party) or there's been a major database screw-up, which has hit one party this year.

Why are some not addressed at all?

Some parties and candidates opt to send unaddressed leaflets to all households. Both addressed and unaddressed are options available with Royal Mail, though not all printers are set up for individual addressed leaflets.

Why did I receive this when I have a "No junk mail" sign up?

Political communications do not meet the official definition of junk mail.

Political parties have announced a suspension of campaigning so why was this delivered?

This came up a bit in the 2017 general election. Once the leaflets have been submitted and accepted by Royal Mail, they are out of control of the parties who are unable to then get delivery delayed. Royal Mail's internal set-up simply doesn't allow for such an instruction to go through and be implemented.

Why have I received a leaflet for a different constituency?

Annoyingly some leaflets seem to turn up in neighbouring constituencies despite everything being correctly filled out. In my experience these are usually unaddressed freeposts and the problem stems from postal areas not aligning to administrative boundaries, ranging from the post code to regional level.

Why does [X] have my details when they're not a political party, but a registered company?

All political parties listed on the ballot paper are officially registered with the Electoral Commission on the Register of Political Parties. Some parties may also be registered as companies for operational reasons (e.g. here's "The Liberal Democrats Limited"'s registration at Companies House) but if they're on the register of parties then they are a recognised political party, no matter how many times somebody tweets otherwise.

Independent candidates are also entitled to a copy of the register for electoral purposes.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Uncertain ballot papers in the Cotswolds

One of the more interesting side shows in the local elections this week has been the result in the Tetbury Town ward on Cotswold District Council. The Conservative candidate retained the seat with a majority of just one vote over an independent and a lot of attention has focused upon one particular ballot paper that ultimately prevented the result from being a tie. (Details at Gloucestershire Live: Ballot paper with 'Brexit' and an arrow written across it accepted as deciding vote in controversial Cotswolds local election)

(The results for the district election, and indeed for just about every election in the area for the last five years can be found at Cotswold District Council - Election Results.)

There has been a lot of comment on the web and Twitter about this ballot paper and it's clear that many people are unaware of either the standard practice in election counts or the official guidance available. It is also clear that nobody has actually got a picture or scan of the ballot paper.

As someone who has lost count of the number of times I've been an election or counting agent, here's a quick rundown of how things work.

Most ballot papers have clear crosses in boxes for one or more candidates and the staff will separate them into separate piles. However some ballot papers aren't clear and if the counting staff are uncertain, or if a counting agent representing a candidate/party challenges a ballot paper's inclusion, then the ballot paper is set aside for adjudication.

The adjudication is carried out by the Returning Officer or by a deputy formally delegated the task. They have to formally determine whether or not the ballot paper shows a clear intention or if it is unclear or if the ballot paper must be rejected for other reasons.

The five categories of rejected votes are as follows:

Want of an official mark
This is an anti-counterfeiting measure. Today it's usually done by printing a special symbol on the ballot paper (with a different symbol for postal votes) but in the past special hole punches were used (and some disputed elections hinged on the failure of staff to properly punch the papers).

Voting for more Candidates than voter was entitled to
A straightforward category.

Writing or mark by which voter could be identified
This is to preserve the integrity of a secret ballot and aims to make it impossible for observers to definitely connect a vote to a voter. Writing your name, address or elector number will invalidate the vote.

Being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty
This covers a wide range from completely blank ballot papers to those with just a message on them to those where the voter's choice can't be easily determined.

Rejected in part
This only comes up in multi-member elections. Sometimes some of the voter's choices are clear and others aren't and only the clear choices are admitted to the count.

The Returning Officer does not rule in a vacuum but instead draws upon the rules set down by legislation and previous court cases and summarised in official Electoral Commission guidance. There are several booklets for the various different elections, but the relevant one here is the excitingly named Dealing with doubtful ballot papers - Supporting local government elections in England and Wales (PDF). This contains examples and the relevant legislation or case references to guide. Occasionally more detailed guidance has to be consulted - the longest I've ever seen was when someone had neatly written "BNP" in a candidate's box. (The BNP was not standing in that election.) The ruling was that this was a valid vote and the candidate's face was a sight to behold. Never has a vote received been less wanted.

The rules and guidance aim heavily towards inclusion:
2.21 The key phrase in the Rules is: 'A ballot paper [...] shall not [...] be deemed to be void if an intention that the vote shall be for one or other of the candidates clearly appears.'
(Rule 47(3), Schedule 2, Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England & Wales) Rules 2006.) (Emphasis in the original.)
Specifically, a vote is still valid even if it is not placed in the box and even if it does not use a cross:
2.3 A ballot paper should not be rejected because the vote is:
• not marked in the proper place
• marked other than by a cross
• marked by more than one mark
(Rule 47(3), Schedule 2, Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England & Wales) Rules 2006)
The principles for determining the outcome are clearly set down:
2.22 Each ballot paper should be considered on its own merits and decisions should be taken on a case-by-case basis.
2.24 The key question a Returning Officer should ask is whether the voter has, on the face of the paper, indicated a reasonably clear intention to vote for a candidate or candidates.
Now the ballot paper in question reportedly had a statement written on it (reports vary as to whether it was "I'm voting for Brexit" or just "Brexit") and an arrow pointing to the Conservative candidate (a detail that is not present in all the reports).

A reporter at the count made some tweets, including pictures and videos, that clearly show there was long and detailed consideration on this ballot paper with the guidance consulted:

As a result the ballot paper was ruled to show a clear selection of the Conservative candidate and thus a valid vote for him. Note that this was a ruling on a ballot paper and it was not a "tie breaker", despite how some of the reports have described it. Rulings on ballot papers are made in elections all the time, though the ballot papers involved rarely swing the outcome. Tie breakers only come when the number of votes after adjudication are exactly equal and a determination is made one way or another.

It cannot be denied that this is not the easiest of ballot papers to rule on. And once again it must be emphasised that everyone talking about this one online has not actually seen the paper in question. But from what has been reported it sounds like the Returning Officer ruled rightly that the ballot paper showed the voter selecting one of the candidates.

The Independent candidate has said he intends to bring an election petition to challenge the result. If he does then whatever the outcome it should at least provide a bit more case law to help future rulings and the booklet linked to here will need to be updated.


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