'Future proof' electoral registers with interoperable software and rules for electronic counting could be required by next general election
Local government employees sitting up for the count in the 2020 general election will be spared having to explain to friends and family why the acting returning officer always announces the number of votes cast, if proposals published today by the government's law reform think tanks become reality.
In a wide ranging report on rationalising electoral law, the Law Commission, together with its sister bodies for Scotland and Northern Ireland, describes the divide between the largely ceremonial role of returning officer and the "administratively very significant" one of the acting officer as "redundant and confusing". Rather, the report proposes that returning officers should be responsible for running the election.
Rationalisation would be enabled by a single piece of legislation to replace "complex, voluminous and fragmented" statutes covering different types of elections across the UK. This would create a single set of electoral offences, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Polling station of choice
The law proposed by the UK’s three law reform bodies, covering England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, would also:
- "Future proof" voter registration systems. The report proposes a "legal requirement for registration officers’ data being capable of being exported to, and their software interacting with, other registration officers’ software". This would allow developments such as the creation of systems to allow electors to vote at a polling station of choice, not the one allocated to them based on where they live.
- Require electors with more than one residence to designate one as their voting residence in national elections, to reduce the risk of double voting.
- Ban the unauthorised taking of photographs in polling stations to preserve ballot secrecy.
- Ensure that the UK’s tradition of ‘qualified secrecy’ - involving numbered papers which can be traced to investigate fraud - "clearly and demonstrably" complies with the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Create a standard set of counting rules - including for electronic counting - applicable to all elections. Electronic counting systems should be demonstrated in advance to political parties and certified by a prescribed body.
- Require online election material to carry an identifying imprint as currently required for printed leaflets.
However, the report shies away from recommending a ban on campaign workers handling postal votes, saying that "regulation would criminalise helpful and otherwise unavailable assistance for those voters who need it". The report notes that Eric Pickles MP has been tasked with investigating the issue of electoral fraud.
The interim report on UK electoral law is based on "unanimous or near unanimous" backing to proposals announced for consultations. They are timed to enable a draft bill to be published in 2017, with the new law ready for the general election due in May 2020.