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LESSONS FOR NEW ELECTION LAWS FROM 2006 LOCAL ELECTION PILOT SCHEMES

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The electoral pilot schemes which took place in 21 local authorities at the May 2006 local elections in England wer...
The electoral pilot schemes which took place in 21 local authorities at the May 2006 local elections in England were managed and delivered well, and have provided useful evidence and lessons for the future, according to evaluation reports published today by the Electoral Commission.

Several of the pilot schemes trialled new procedures which are now included in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, passed last month. New provisions such as signing for ballot papers in polling stations, postal vote signature checking and a facility for voters to track the delivery of their postal vote were trialled in May's elections.

Signing for ballot papers

--Seven councils piloted a new requirement for electors to provide their signature when voting in person at the polling station. The vast majority of electors provided their signature when requested without concern or complaint, and the number who refused to sign was minimal.

--Public opinion research by BMRB found that almost half (46%) of the people surveyed thought the requirement to sign for ballot papers would reduce electoral fraud, and around a third of all respondents in the pilot scheme areas (35%) said the requirement would make them more confident in the voting process. Issues raised by voters in the pilot scheme areas included: the value to be gained from requiring signatures without them being checked against another signature or other form of identification; who would have access to the signatures; the perceived invasion of privacy; and concern about unnecessary bureaucracy.

Postal vote signature checking

--Two local authorities tested the potential benefits of checking signatures on statements completed by postal voters against signatures previously collected. The pilot scheme evaluations also considered the time and resources required to verify the signatures.

--In the London Borough of Newham all registered postal voters were asked to confirm their postal vote application by providing their signature on a separate form. More than 11,500 signatures were checked before the election count began, using electronic scanning and checking technology. The scanning process cost just over£10 per check carried out, raising questions about value for money, although this was the first trial of the technology in a single authority.

--In Stevenage Borough in Hertfordshire, a manual comparison between signatures on a small sample (just over 200) of the statements completed by postal voters and their original postal vote application forms was carried out by the Returning Officer. The amount of time required to check the sample of postal voting statements was significant - approximately five hours.

--The checking process improved the ability of Returning Officers to detect possible fraud - in both pilot schemes a number of returned postal voting statements were rejected because they contained signatures that did not match those provided for comparison.

--The pilots also appear to have had a positiveimpact on confidence - 43% of people surveyed in pilot scheme areas said they would be more confident about the security of postal voting because of the checking of signatures.

Postal vote tracking

--Two authorities provided a postal vote tracking service which allowed voters to find out whether their postal vote had been received by the Returning Officer.

--The two systems were relatively expensive on a 'per voter' basis, partly because only a small proportion of electors used the tracking service - approximately 8% of postal voters in Shrewsbury and 12% of postal voters in Lewisham.

--The availability of a postal vote tracking service is likely to have a positive impact on confidence - more than half (57%) of people surveyed in the two pilot scheme areas who had not used the facilities said they would be more confident that their postal vote had been counted if they were to track their vote in the future. Previous research carried out by the Commission has found that one of the principal concerns about postal voting is that postal votes will not be received by the Returning Officer in time to be counted.

Nicole Smith, director of policy and strategy at the Electoral Commission, said ' Some of the piloted procedures will be implemented across the country in May 2007 and this latest set of election pilots has provided us with evidence to help make sure elections are run more efficiently and effectively in the future. For example, pilots for postal vote signature checking - a measure the Commission has been calling for to improve security - have given us some important lessons to help improve the process. The pilots also demonstrated that checking makes it easier to detect fraud and boosts public confidence in postal voting.'

The commission has published reports evaluating each of the 16 individual pilot schemes, and six thematic briefing papers summarising the findings of the pilot schemes in the following areas: security and the administration of elections; early and mobile voting; electronic counting; postal vote tracking; postal vote signature checking; and providing signatures in polling stations. All the reports are available on the commission's website

Notes

1.The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our mission is to foster public confidence and participation by promoting integrity, involvement and effectiveness in the democratic process.

2.Under the Representation of the People Act 2000, local authorities in England or Wales can submit proposals to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to carry out an electoral pilot scheme. Electoral pilot schemes can involve changes to when, where and how voting at local elections is to take place, how the votes cast at the elections are to be counted, or allow candidates to send free election communications to electors.

3.The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to evaluate and report on any pilot scheme approved by the Secretary of State under the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 2000, and is required to publish evaluation reports on pilot schemes within three months of the election taking place. When evaluating pilots, the Commission must consider whether:

--voting or counting the votes was easier

--turnout was improved

--electoral fraud was reduced or increased

--the cost of the election was reduced or increased

4.Fifteen electoral pilot schemes were carried out in a total of 21 local authorities at the May 2006 local elections in England. These reports, together with summaries of key findings, are available for download at www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/pilotsmay2006.cfm

5.The innovations trialled by the pilot schemes are as summarised in the list below. In addition, many of the pilots made changes to the design of the ballot paper, including the inclusion of a barcode, the removal of the counterfoil or the replacement of the perforated official mark with an official mark in the form of a watermark. These changes were made in order to facilitate the efficient administration of the election in general or the pilot scheme in particular.

--Brent (simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters)

--Brentwood (requirement for polling station voters to provide signature; simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters)

--Broxbourne (early voting in addition to the traditional polling day)

--Harrow (simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters).

--Lewisham (requirement for polling station voters to provide signature; early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at supermarket and town centre locations; postal vote tracking website and electronic counting of votes)

--Merseyside - Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, and Sefton (production of marked register of postal voters)

--Newham (Fully automated electronic postal vote signature checking and associated signature collection process; targeted provision of early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at mobile polling stations in care homes)

--Peterborough (signing in polling stations)

--Rushmoor (early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at town centre locations and army bases with terminals to help disabled voters to complete their ballot paper)

--Shrewsbury and Atcham (early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at shopping centre and rural locations; postal vote tracking website; information about candidates provided on poll cards; simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters)

--Stevenage (manual checking of a sample of signatures from the postal vote statement against the signatures on postal vote applications; simplified postal vote statement)

--Stratford-on- Avon (simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters)

--Swindon (simplified postal vote statement)

--Tyne and Wear -Gateshead, Newcastle, South Tyneside and Sunderland,(early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at town centre locations; requirement for early voters to provide signature; simplified postal vote statement and production of marked register of postal voters)

--Westminster (early voting in addition to the traditional polling day at army barracks; electronic counting of votes)

7. The commission employed BMRB Social Research to undertake a programme of research exploring the experiences and views of the general public and other stakeholders in the electoral process. This programme incorporated both quantitative and qualitative methods of research evaluation. BMRB's research report The 2006 local elections and electoral pilot schemes is available to download from www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/research

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