LESS than 40 per cent of voters across Scotland bothered to take part in last year’s council elections – and this week a committee of MSPs recommended piloting on-line and phone voting in a bid to boost turn-out.
The apparent lack of interest in the local elections should not have come as a surprise. Up until last year, council elections were held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections and turn-out was consequently significantly higher – 53.8 per cent in 2007. But MSPs decided in their wisdom that the two sets of elections should be separated, partly in the hope that council contests would get more attention. The result, as predicted, is fewer people taking part.
Voting by phone, text and internet are not new ideas, but when they have been discussed before there has always been concern about how secure these innovative methods would be against fraud.
The Scottish Parliament’s remit at the moment only stretches to setting the rules for council elections, but one MSP argues it would be wrong to adopt phone or online voting for local elections alone for fear of devaluing them. It could send the message that Holyrood and Westminster polls require watertight, tamper-proof voting systems, but when it comes to choosing who runs the city council, a less secure, Big Brother-style vote is okay.
Postal voting has been open to serious fraud in the past and it is only now that a more stringent voter registration system is about to be introduced across the UK to try to stamp out abuse.
After the 2007 fiasco over electronic counting, when several counts were abandoned in the middle of the night because of problems with the technology, it is tempting to say Scotland needs to make sure it can handle traditional pencil and paper voting before trying out anything too complex.
And the campaign for today’s Liberton/Gilmerton council by-election highlighted another problem area in the electoral system.
The SNP was accused of adopting a “one-party state” attitude when it distributed a leaflet describing the contest as an “SNP by-election” and said electors were being asked to choose “a replacement SNP councillor”. Although the vacancy was caused by the death of the SNP’s Tom Buchanan, it was of course an open contest with eight candidates of different persuasions. Any suggestion voters had to choose an SNP councillor was plainly wrong – but no-one could do much about it.
The council said the Returning Officer, who is in charge of the election, had no remit to monitor campaign material and the Electoral Commission – despite producing hefty volumes assessing how well elections are run – said it only issued guidance warning against making false statements about rival candidates’ character or conduct.
The only option for anyone angered by the leaflet appeared to be reporting it to the police, who might reasonably feel their duties lay more in patrolling the streets and catching criminals than adjudicating on election literature.
Officials administering elections are right to ensure they remain totally impartial at all times, but that cannot mean ignoring blatant misleading of voters.
Whether it’s innovative voting methods or dodgy leaflets, there are important issues to be considered around our electoral system. And despite centuries of experience of democracy, it’s not clear they are being properly addressed.