Behind the ballot box

The easily-formed association between electoral reform and voting systems allows deeper concerns surrounding reform to be swept under the rug. As voters go to the polls to cast their vote for their respective town and county councils this May, behind the ballot box lays an electoral law in need of reform.


The failure of successive governments since 1983 to consolidate electoral law in line with a modernisation of electoral procedures which were introduced in part by devolution and postal voting has developed a fragmented system of electoral laws governing elections. As a result there remains a Victorian conventional model of electoral law that is forced to accommodate various elections to a range of elected institutions which employ different voting systems.

The unadvisable development of British electoral law leaves no consistent principle to govern its provisions. Electoral law provision regarding voter registration (a key tenet of the electoral administration) has as a result of amendments introduced by the statutory electoral innovations of 2002 and 2006 become quite complex.

It was unsurprising but nonetheless alarming for the 2007 Gould report (which investigated the nightmare administering of the 2007 Scottish elections) concerning Roles, Relationships and Accountability to find that these areas were “extremely fragmented” to the extent that efforts to ensure the smooth running of elections were “hindered at almost every stage of the process”.

More broadly, Gould further found British electoral legislation “fragmented” and “antiquated”. Ron Gould’s conclusions are corroborated by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ assessment of the 2010 British general election. The office’s report after noting the complex and fragmented nature of British electoral law concluded the existing framework was “not suitable to conduct a 21st-century election”.

The fragmentation of electoral provisions spread over various sources provides serious difficulties for local electoral officials, the administrators of democracy. One local electoral official reported: “some of the legislation is UK some of it is Scottish government and it is all amendment act, amendment act, amendment act … it’s just not understandable to the vast majority of people and most the administrators as well”.

As Vickery & Stein include the failing to train an official to a sufficient standard in their definition of electoral malpractice, the multifaceted nature of British electoral law raises the potential for electoral malpractice to occur.

This potential is very real as one returning officer recalls when on one occasion there was a by-election and a local election on the same day, “through an admin error they added them up and then double counted some of the mixed ones. ‘The result was a BNP candidate elected rather than a Labour one”.

The Electoral Commission in 2010 found 30% of respondents not very confident or not all confident with the way that years’ general election was run. To restore a greater level of voter satisfaction and confidence in the administration of British elections, the government needs to act to provide our electoral law with the consolidation that is long overdue. A continued failure to do so leaves our democracy at risk.


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September 2021
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