It should therefore come as no surprise that the Solace Elections Conference 2019 was underpinned by a theme of change – both change to the electoral framework itself, and external changes to the political landscape, creating further challenges and uncertainty for those working within the democratic sphere.
The Solace Elections Conference 2019 brought together these actors, to hear a range of views and experiences on these developments, including chief executives, senior electoral staff, the press, and keynote speaker Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution.
For chief executives, returning officers, and all those involved in the successful operation of our democracy, some key reflections from the conference on the changing electoral landscape were identified:
1) Keeping pace with electoral reform
The Minister was keen to emphasise the Government’s commitment to preserving electoral integrity, especially regarding the proposed introduction of voter ID. The panel reflected on the Government’s first 5 voter ID pilots that took place in May’s local elections.
Gordon Amos (Electoral Services Manager – Watford Borough Council) spoke positively of his experience of leading on the pilot in Watford’s local elections last May, where there was both record turnout and a small proportion of people (42) who could not vote because they did not have either their poll card or another acceptable form of ID.
While admitting that councils should still ultimately strive to ensure no one at all is turned away, he asserted that the promising outcome of the pilot was firstly as a result of regular and specialised communication (especially important in diverse and multilingual electoral districts) including the use of social media and video. Secondly, the trial’s use of poll cards as ID maximised the accessibility of the election and proved to be an acceptable and proportionate compromise between needing no ID, and needing strictly prescribed photo ID.
Charlotte Griffiths (Electoral & IS Manager – Woking Borough Council) reflected on her experience of implementing the trail in Woking. Against a backdrop of previous voter fraud, she was keen to explore the use of photographic ID to increase security in Woking’s elections. Where voters didn’t possess photo ID, they were issued with ‘local elector cards’, which proved to be an effective strategy in ensuring maximum accessibility to elections for all demographics.
Further trials are set to take place in this year’s local elections, across more areas.
2) The opportunities (and drawbacks) of technology in our democracy
In his presentation on the relationship between the media and those running elections, Roger Smith (Elections Editor - Press Association) opened up the debate on the role of technology in modern democracies. On the one hand, new innovations in social media and communication can increase the speed at which results are communicated to voters. However, these new technologies can just as easily increase the spread of disinformation in elections and political discourse. Close collaboration between electoral staff and the media is essential, particularly on election days themselves, to ensure that results are communicated accurately and quickly.
The notion of online voting was also discussed. Participants and panel members suggested that online votes could be a more efficient alternative to postal votes, particularly for electors living abroad. Estonia’s use of online voting was examined as an example of how this system can increase voter engagement and access in elections. Interestingly, voting online in Estonia is a popular form of voting across a spread of demographics, not just among younger people as might be expected.
The main concerns raised about this form of voting related to cybersecurity risks, especially following the allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Questions were also raised about the cost of implementing an electronic system over the existing pencil-and-paper method.
Additionally, proposals for modernising the annual canvass model were warmly received by the conference. The Minister announced her intention to move towards a less prescriptive and, following the path of the digital service and online voter registration, more digitised process. New legislation would give Electoral Registration Officers greater freedom to introduce modern technologies on a local basis.
3) Rising levels of intimidation in public life.
Particularly since the result of the referendum on our membership of the EU, public life in the UK has felt more polarised and divided than ever. This was a sentiment echoed by both returning officers at the conference, who had noticed increasingly hostile environments at elections, and by the Minister, who worried that this trend could discourage talented people from entering public service. Last year, the Cabinet Office launched a consultation, ‘Protecting the Political Debate’, which sought views on new measures to tackle this growing trend. The Minister announced the next steps and response to this consultation will be published early this year.
Building trust in and accessibility to elections is now more important than ever; the Minister emphasized the need for collaborative action, stemming from a range of actors in including political parties, the police, and the electoral community, whose duty it is to ensure that electors can cast their votes in peace.
The conference opened up a useful debate on both the opportunities and the dangers of new legal frameworks and political and technological developments in the democratic sphere. On one hand, there is great potential to harness these developments for more accessible and secure elections. The challenge is for the electoral community to ensure this outcome in the face of increasing political polarisation and uncertainty.