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'Councils deserve referendum praise – but government must clarify the rules'

Jenny Watson
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Over recent years, there’s been much debate as to whether democratic participation is on a downward trajectory.

That certainly wasn’t the case at June’s EU referendum. A turnout of 72.2% was the highest UK-wide turnout since the 1992 general election and almost 6% higher than the 2015 general election.

As chief counting officer for the referendum I’m pleased that when voters cast their ballot, the overwhelming majority did so with confidence.

Undoubtedly a successful poll is one where the administration receives little comment and subsequent public debate focuses on the consequences of the result. The report we have published today confirms that through careful management of the potential risks associated with the timing and profile of the poll, we saw a referendum that was delivered without any major issues and the announcement of a clear, timely final result.

Following a complex set of polls in May, when elections took place in every part of the country, the electoral community went straight into delivering the EU referendum. Electoral registration officers handled 2.1m additional applications to register to vote, resulting in a record high electorate of 46,500,001. However, we now know that 38% of applications made during the campaign were duplicates, placing a huge strain on the resources of local authorities. That is why we have called on the government to develop an online service allowing people to check whether they are already correctly registered to vote before they submit a new application to register.

On polling day itself, 382 counting officers across the UK and Gibraltar, along with more than 100,000 staff members working in around 41,000 polling stations, contended with a record turnout. The hard work of these thousands of individuals should be celebrated. As a result of their professionalism, 77% of people we spoke to after the poll said they thought the referendum had been well-run.

Another vital building block of our democracy is the legislation that governs elections and referendums. This area is in need of major reform. Our report calls for important changes that have been applied to the different legal frameworks for recent referendums to be incorporated into the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The act sets out the standard framework for referendums. In addition, a generic order for the conduct of referendums should be introduced by the government now. This would remove ambiguity over the detailed rules for the conduct of referendums each time one of these polls is called.

Clarity and rationalisation are also the aims of the Law Commissions’ electoral review project. As a result it has also made recommendations that support the commission’s call to have a clear, standard framework and conduct rules for referendums. Government support for these reforms would benefit future governments, electoral administrators and ultimately will give voters certainty as to how any future referendum will be conducted.

Jenny Watson, chair, Electoral Commission and chief counting officer for the EU referendum

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