Scottish Independence Referendum

Electoral Commission Committee written statement – made at on 16 December 2014.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

(Representing the Speakers Committee on the Electoral Commission): The Electoral Commission has today published its report on the Scottish independence referendum, held on 18 September 2014. The report provides a comprehensive overview of the issues relating to the referendum, from the passage of the legislation through to the conduct of the poll. It looks at the key issues that arose on the way to polling day, including the conduct of campaigners and the Electoral Commission’s regulation of them, and provides data on the views of voters and the experience they had throughout this period.

The evidence gathered by the Electoral Commission to inform its report shows that the referendum was well run, with high levels of voter satisfaction. Research found that 94% of voters who cast their vote at a polling station and 98% of voters who cast a vote by post were satisfied with the process. The research also found that 10% of those who reported having voted also claimed to have voted for the first time.

Of the 4,285,323 people who were registered to vote in the referendum, 109,499 of them were aged 16 or 17 on the day of the poll. The Electoral Commission’s research with these young voters found that 75% of them claimed to have voted and, of these, 97% said they intended to vote again in future elections and referendums.

The Commission’s report notes that an important lesson from the experience in Scotland that others looking to extend the franchise should consider carefully, is that to do this well it is important that time is given both for administrators to do targeted activity to register young people and for campaigners to engage with them.

The Electoral Commission’s report also acknowledges the hard work and professionalism of those responsible for administering the referendum, from the Chief Counting Officer, Mary Pitcaithly, to all of the counting officers and electoral registration officers across Scotland. Their commitment and hard work led to the registration of almost 150,000 voters in the last month before the deadline and orderly management of the record number of votes cast on polling day, which ensured that voters across Scotland took part in an effective and efficient poll. The Electoral Management Board for Scotland provided a crucial role in advising, supporting and guiding the work of all those administering the referendum. The Commission has previously recommended that the EMB’s role should be placed on a statutory footing for all parliamentary elections in Scotland and it continues to believe that this is the case. The Commission would welcome this change being considered as part of the wider electoral changes proposed by the recent publication of the Smith Commission’s proposals.

The Commission itself had a number of roles at the referendum. As well as supporting the Chief Counting Officer and administrators across Scotland throughout the referendum period, it was also responsible for registering campaigners and regulating the campaign spending and reporting rules they operated under. In total it registered 42 campaigners, with 21 registering in support of a “Yes” outcome and 21 in support of a “No” outcome at the referendum. For the first time at any referendum, campaigners had to report their donations to the Commission before the poll. This meant that the Commission was able to publish the details of campaign donations totalling £4.5 million, giving voters access to that information before they went to vote. This level of transparency for voters and the overall level of compliance from campaigners in meeting this new requirement were welcomed by the Commission.

The report also acknowledges the crucial role played by the UK and Scottish Governments, in making an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, which enabled the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the main referendum legislation nine months ahead of the poll. These actions ensured that there was sufficient time for those administering the poll to prepare for delivering their respective roles at the referendum. It also allowed campaigners to familiarise themselves with the campaign rules and ensure they had adequate processes in place to comply with them. The experience at the Scottish referendum was in sharp contrast to the referendums in 2011 where the rules were confirmed only three months ahead of polling day. Therefore, the Commission continues to recommend that for all future referendums whether held across or in particular parts of the UK, the legislation—including any secondary legislation—should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with by campaigners, electoral registration officers or counting officers.

Finally, the Electoral Commission’s report on the referendum has also found that holding a poll on such an important constitutional issue on a separate day from other elections, helped both administrators and campaigners plan their activity more effectively and gave voters space to understand the issues. The Commission has previously recommended that combining a referendum with other polls should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The Commission believes that this remains the case, but that for issues of a similar scale, including for example the UK’s membership of the European Union, the example set in Scotland should be considered carefully to ensure that campaigners and voters are not in a position where the same parties may be working together in one contest, while campaigning against each other in another, thus causing voter confusion.

The Electoral Commission’s report contains a number of other recommendations for the conduct of any future referendum legislated for by the Scottish Parliament on any issue. But the lessons learnt from this event are equally relevant to the UK Government and Parliament and will need to be acted upon should the UK Parliament decide to legislate for a referendum in the future.

Copies of the Commission’s report have been placed in the Library of the House and it is also available on the Commission’s website: www.electoralcommission.org.uk