Has the UK failed some voters?

A big caveat for this article – I’m relying on news reports. And whilst there are multiple sources, this is not a substitute for a proper election observation.

But nevertheless, it does seem that many of those UK citizens who live overseas and who wanted to vote in the European Parliamentary election did not receive their ballot paper in good time and also that many of those EU citizens who were in the UK and wanted to vote here were prevented from doing so.

Let’s take each of those situations in turn. First up, UK citizens voting from abroad.

The law is that to be on the electoral role a UK citizen has to be normally resident at a UK address or have left to live overseas within the last 15 years. In the latter case, a person will retain a place on the electoral roll in the council and constituency they last lived in.

Until a few years ago, ballot papers would not be sent overseas and such electors would need to appoint a proxy – someone to vote for them who lives in the UK. But now they can be sent abroad, but at the risk of different postal services – you take the chance of the ballot paper being stuck in the post in either direction. But there is a good faith argument to be made. The council sending out the ballot should be doing so early enough in the process to give the voter every chance of receiving it and returning it in time for it to be counted. In this election a number of authorities sent out postal votes very early – at a time when the government was still claiming the election might be cancelled. So it was perfectly possible to ensure overseas electors had the maximum chance of casting a vote. However it is alleged that some councils did not send out ballots to overseas electors in good time. 

I suspect that this is going to be a matter that will have to be investigated on a council by council basis. They all keep records as to when each batch of ballots are sent out and so this will be relatively easy to do.

I’ll come back to what could be done for the future, but a number of current MEPs have suggested that returning officers accept any ballot that is received before the count begins on Sunday. That might be a sensible compromise.

There are also the cases of EU citizens living in the UK. The law says that an EU citizen can choose to vote where they live or in their country of citizenship if the two are different. But they can only vote once and the country concerned must have a process to enable a challenge in the case of an accusation of multiple voting.

So in the UK, an EU citizen must first be on the electoral roll – as a UK citizen has to be. The UK interpretation of the ‘challenge’ rule is to require them also to fill in a form (known as UC1 or EC6) to formalise their choice to vote in the UK and renounce their right to vote in that election in their country of citizenship. A couple of former Lib Dem MEPs – Andrew Duff and Sarah Ludford – have suggested this is a case of ‘gold-plating’, ie making a simple requirement far more complex than it needs to be.

What appears to have happened is that some EU citizens were not made aware of this requirement, including some who specifically asked about a form but were told by their council that they were ok to vote and didn’t need to fill it in. Others were sent the form far too late to return it by the deadline of 7th May. And there appear to have been some presiding officers who got confused about the rules and mis-informed legitimate voters, telling them they could not vote.

The Electoral Commission has laid the blame squarely with the government. They said that the government knew about this confusion but, because of the intention to leave the EU before these elections, chose not to do anything about it. And once participation became the only option, it was too late to do anything about it.

So what can be done? To be honest, very little that can give votes to those who missed out. The principle in the UK is that elections are only ever overturned or re-run in cases where it can be proved that the result was changed by fraud or official failure. That is a pretty high bar and almost impossible to clear in an election spread across regions of the UK.

But, the case for legal action does not begin and end with a re-run. Managing elections is an official duty and so there may be a case for investigation to see if that official duty has been breached. The standard in such cases is pretty low – that an official ‘is guilty of an act or omission in breach of that duty’ (RPA 1950 s.32 as amended). So if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that a returning officer or registration officer failed in their duty to properly manage the process then they run the risk of a fine or even jail time.

I’m not going to suggest whether any individual should be taken to court. There are those (including Democracy Volunteers and the electors affteced) who know more about each case. But if such breaches did occur in an election being observed by a recognised group then you could be sure that they would be highlighted in the observation report and recommendations would be made for the future. Such recommendations might include:

  • Ensuring that all presiding officers, electoral registration officers and returning officers are properly trained and resourced for the specific election they are managing. Presiding officers should have up to date manuals for the right election to hand.
  • Ending the haphazard nature of local decision making for national elections. There should be a defined timetable managed by the Electoral Commission with which each returning officer must comply.
  • Local councils should understand the precious nature of the elections they are managing. Giving incorrect information to electors – even if done unintentionally – should be regarded as a serious failing.

Above all, these reports show that UK elections are not perfect. We might not have the same problems that exist in other countries, but we do have issues and we should acknowledge the fact and seek to address them as soon as possible.

Russia’s next President? What happens in 2024

Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation last year by a healthy margin. Not quite the 70/70 margin that he was aiming for, but a significant first round majority in an election characterised by a lack of competition. But that was, at least officially, his last election. In 2024 his second term will expire. Russia, and the wider world, wants to know what will come next.

In essence, there are five options for Putin to consider and very few Russia watchers are brave enough to put much money on any particular one. The signs that he is going down a particular path might be well hidden, but they are nonetheless there. The trouble is that the same sign might lead to more than one outcome. Therefore, in no particular order:


  1. A second ‘Dos-si-Dos’ with Medvedev

It worked once, so why not again? Taking a term off from the role of President to be Prime Minister is hardly a real change as no one would be under illusions about who is the real boss. Medvedev would undertake a bit more ceremonial stuff, but Putin would still pull the strings.

Except – Medvedev is not nearly as credible as he once was. In fact he is seen as a Dan Quayle-type by some in Russia, and there is currently no one else with sufficient profile to be slotted in as a reliable figurehead. What happens if the voters of Russia choose not to endorse Medvedev (or another nominee) in an election? And will Putin be seen as being too old to return. After all, the presidential term has been lengthened from four to six years and he will be 78 before he is allowed to resume the top job.

How we might see this coming – If Putin starts to emphasise the inviolability of the constitution; If Medvedev is replaced as Prime Minister or a credible, but not threatening, successor is groomed.

 


  1. Stepping Away from it all

If the constitution says that Putin cannot stand again as President, then he could simply follow the constitution. It is the simplest and most elegant option and would bring praise from former opponents and enemies around the world. He could step back and enioy his retirement years in fitting luxury.

Except – Everyone knows that this is not how this story plays out. Russia as a top down autocracy might have lost some of its direction in recent decades, but even if every directive is no longer controlled by the party or the president, a lot of what happens is done because officials believe that this is what the boss would want to happen. Stepping away from such power and control is highly unlikely. Putin has undoubtedly amassed great private wealth but gives no sign of wanting to retire to enjoy it. And, once he is no longer in charge, he cannot protect himself, his friends or his family as he can now. Retribution is not going to come straight away, but in a decade or so life could get pretty tough for an ex-authoritarian.

How we might see this coming – More emphasis on the constitution and its importance; Strengthening ties with a friendly country where Putin might acquire a ‘holiday home’; Promotion of a successor who is stronger than Medvedev but nonetheless completely unthreatening to Putin; Interest in taking on an international role (ideally one that comes with some form of immunity).

 


  1. The Nazarbayev

A number of long standing leaders of former Soviet states are deciding that the time is right to step aside. Their concern, as Putin’s, is to safeguard their legacy. Or, more accurately, to ensure they aren’t likely to face the inside of a courtroom or the loss of all their pilfered gains.

So Putin might look to the example set by Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Nazabayev stepped aside earlier this year in favour of his longstanding (and largely anonymous) sidekick Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev didn’t quit politics completely. He retained the position of head of the Nur Otan Party (Kazakhstan is effectively a one party state) as well as President of the Security Council. In addition, every second thing in Kazakhstan is named after Nazarbayev – who is referred to as ‘First President and Leader of the Nation’. From airports to universities to the capital city itself, it is difficult to imagine him being denounced, let alone put under any real hardship.

Except – For all the deficiencies of the Russian Federation, it is a more open and pluralist state than Kazakhstan. Putin might well get a defence college named after him, but I suspect Moscow and St Petersburg will be inked into atlases for a few years yet to come. The United Russia Party was created to do Putin’s will but it has also been the shock absorber for discontent within the country and looks set to be abandoned in favour of a new grouping if needed. Putin could well keep hold of the country’s security aparatus and that could protect him for a few years, but it is not the long term solution that he might wish.

How we might see this coming – Almost certainly, we won’t. The secret to making this option a success is that it must come by surprise. Perhaps the absence of other options will be the clue. But if it is to happen then it is unlikely to be at the last minute.

 


  1. A new union

The constitution forbids a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation. But what if there were another top job created? What if another, currently independent, state decided to throw in its lot with Russia to create a new Union. Well if that were to happen then that union would need to have a supreme leader, wouldn’t it? An elected President. And who better to guide this new creation than Putin? This option actually feeds into Russia’s adoption of the Brezhnev Doctrine and spheres of influence, especially if some countries cannot be trusted to be loyal of their own volition.

Except – The downside here, of course, is what state is going to give up its sovereignty to become a vassal of Russia? Belarus is the obvious choice, but it seems unlikely. Kazakhstan is another option, but that ship might well have sailed with the accession of Tokayev to the seat of power in Nur-Sultan.

The other concern would be the consternation sparked in the remaining former Soviet states. Who would believe that Putin’s ambitions are limited to a union of two or three? 

How we might see this coming – If it looks like Belarus is wobbling away from adherence to Russia or if any of the central asian states start to become too close to China.

 


  1. A new constitution

That this is Putin’s final term is due to the limits imposed by the constitution. If such a document imposes limits that you don’t like then you can simply amend it, right? 

Except – A new constitution would require a public vote and, whilst these have been easy enough to win in the past, the same might not be the case in the future. Putin is less popular than he was before and the crest that he rode after annexing Crimea has definitely fallen away. Presidential elections are easier to manipulate because a vote against Putin required ballots to be cast in favour of one of a range of pretty unappealling alternatives. Voting against a constitutional amendment is much easier to do as it means simply rejecting Putin’s power grab.

And whilst it is easy enough to rig an election – and he has had lots of practice – massaging a constitutional poll would be more blatant than anything Putin has yet managed. Expect mass footage of ballot box stuffing and rejection of the results by honest international observer groups.

How we might see this coming – If there is talk about the need for a new or updated constitution. Putin was very good at boosting turnout in the last presidential election by running ‘neighbourhood improvement ballots’ alongside. Give the public something they really care about to vote for and you can get away with slipping in a less popular change at the same time.

Australia to vote on May 18th

Australians will vote for a new lower house of parliament on May 18th after PM Scott Morrison announced the widely expected polls. In a very Australian turn of phrase, Morrison described the vote about giving people a ‘fair go’.

The current government is formed by a coalition of Morrison’s Liberal Party (he took over as PM after ousting Malcolm Turnbull last year) and the National Party. In Australian terms the Liberal Party is a broadly conservative force. The opposition is dominated by the Labor Party. The current parliament has a number of independents who have exerted a lot of power over the minority government.

Elections to the House of Representatives are conducted using the alternative vote (or instant runoff voting) in single member constituencies and voting is compulsory. At the last election, the Liberal/National coalition was re-elected with 76 seats – a bare one seat majority in the 150 seat house. Labor won 69 seats and Greens, Centre Party, Australia Party and two independents won a seat each.

Since the 2016 poll, two Liberal members faced (and won) by-elections caused by the dual nationality crisis. One Labor member faced a by-election for similar reasons and the party held the seat. At present five seats are vacant – four due to the nationality issue.

Current polls put the coalition marginally ahead with 38%, Labor on 35%, the Greens on 11%, One Nation on 5% and others on 10%. However, the AV election system often results in straight fights between the top two parties after minor candidates have been eliminated. The majority of these voters favour Labor and so the two party preference polling currently shows the party leading 52-48 over the coalition.

Netanyahu wins in Israel for the 5th time

[Updated to reflect the final vote tallies and that The New Right slipped below the threshold]

Israel has voted and it seems pretty clear that Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in his aim of becoming the country’s longest serving Prime Minister. After a fractious campaign against the new Blue and White Party led by former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Netanyahu is in the best place to form a ruling coalition.

As ever in Israel, no single party has enough seats to form a government on its own. The national list system, combined with a 3.25% threshold, means that there are going to be either 11 or 12 parties in the 120 seat Knesset. And with religious parties and parties on the right being able to muster around 67 of those seats, Netanyahu is in a much stronger position than Gantz.

As things stand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds 36 seats. Their potential coalition partners line up as follows:

Shas 8; UTJ 7; Yisrael Beytenu 5; Kulanu 4; URP 5;

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party holds 35 seats, and the rest of the opposition is:

Labor 6; Meretz 4; Hadash-Ta’al 6; Ra’am-Balad 4.

After voting was over and all ballots have been counted, there was still some uncertainty. The New Right, a party formed by former Minister Neftali Bennet, was briefly listed as securing 3.26% of the vote. But the Central Election Committee reviewed some of the ballots cast by soldiers and others using an absentee ‘double envelope’ system. As a result,  TNR slipped below the threshold and lost their four seats. This didn’t change the overall outcome of the election that much, but still constitutes a massive failure for Bennet who helped to bring down the previous government when he walked out of Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Formally, the parties have two weeks of horse-trading before the President calls them in to see who can form a government. He does not have to call on a party leader to be the new Prime Minister, but it seems all but certain that Netanyahu will be receiving the call.

The campaign itself was dominated by unprecedented interventions from abroad with Netanyahu getting the explicit backing of Donald Trump (who announced his support for formally recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israeli territory) and implicit support from Russian, Brazillian and Indian leaders. Netanyahu pulled his traditional last minute rabbit out of the hat by suggesting that he will look to annexe much of the West Bank into Israel. Whether he follows through on this pledge is still in the air.

The other key issue is an investigation by the Attorney General into Netanyahu over ossies of corruption. The indictment has been published and looks strong but will the Prime Minister excape being charged by adopting some form of immunity – the so-called ‘French law’? Will he then seek to become President and avoid the courts for a further 10 years? What will that do for confidence in the Israeli political and judicial system? All these are questions that will dominate Israeli politics for some time to come.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

Ukraine Presidential Election latest

The build-up to Ukraine’s Presidential Election continues. 

1. A primer on the politics of Ukraine

If you want a (western) academic view on the forthcoming race, this 30 minute YouTube video by Professor Taras Kuzio is worth watching. It was created in July last year and so does not take into account all the latest developments, but is a good primer.

 

2. Disenfranchisement of IDPs

Elsewhere, Open Democracy have published a paper about the disenfranchisement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) for local elections in Ukraine. Although people who have moved from the Donbas because of the conflict there are able to vote in Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the paper suggests that excluding them from local elections is both unfair and liable to convey the message that they are not ‘proper’ citizens. It may affect their participation in the Presidential election.

3. The political novice

Andreas Umland, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, has written about the candidacy of the actor and TV producer Volodymyr Zelens’kyy in the Presidential race. Zelens’kyy played the character of the President in the TV show ‘Servant of the People’ and is now the candidate on behalf of the party with the same name.

Umland says that there are significant downsides to Zelens’kyy’s candidacy, not least his lack of any governmental experience. Whilst TV can write situations for a novice president to navigate, how transferrable is that to real life? On the other hand, Umland argues that Zelens’kyy has changed the debate around the Presidential elections. He says that voters regard the two leading candidates – Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – as old news and debate had ossified as a result. He also identifies Zelens’kyy’s jewish roots and south east (Russian speaking) Ukrainian origins as being different from the mainstream debate.

Note: The links shown are the views of the individual authors and not of myself.

Reining the Political ‘Wild West’ – Campaign Rules for the 21st century

The Electoral Reform Society (for whom I worked between 1998 and 2006) have co-ordinated a significant study published today which looks at electoral finance in the UK and in particular what they refer to as the wild west of campaigning – online.

The publication is a series of essays looking at different aspects of the field and includes contributions from the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission.

ERS also has a list of recommendations for changes in the law. They are: 

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending are two of the most readily achievable solutions. The government seems to recognise this and its consultation on imprints was a welcome and important  rst step in this regard.
  2. The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
  3. Those charged with enforcing the rules should have suffcient enforcement powers and resources. That must involve strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.
  4. Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  5. More broadly, the ERS is calling for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process. Alongside efforts to improve the quality of public debate itself, this could transform the murky world of online campaigning into a force for good.

ERS is right to point out that this is an area in which the UK has woeful regulation. UK electoral laws were mostly written in the year 2000 – before widespread use of the internet and before social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were even invented.

Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Aberavon and one of the contributors, has set out some of the practical changes he believes are necessary:

  1. We should look at which powers sit best with the Electoral Commission – which works best as a regulator and policy body – and which should sit with the police. There should also be unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than a maximum of £20,000, which is an insufficient deterrent.
  2. All political campaigns should be made to report spending online. We have a precedent for this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which tracks MPs’ spending. This would make it easier for campaigns to track their spending and bring more transparency into elections.
  3. Financial transfers from designated campaign groups during referendums must be banned. Current rules allow the designated campaign to give up to £700,000 to groups as long as they do not coordinate their work, but it is surely unreasonable to think gifts of this size are entirely without expectation, particularly as they create the potential to evade spending limits.
  4. We should regulate paid political digital advertising in the election period with a digital bill of rights for democracy.

Mr Kinnock also announces that he has set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Overall this is a significant contribution to the debate. Where this paper is weakest is in setting out a coherent statement of principles for regulation. We cannot just combat the problems that exist at the moment. Given how rarely electoral laws are updated, the action that is taken needs to ensure that the law is future-proofed for further developments in digital campaigning and engagement. ERS identify this in their fifth recommendation, but don’t go on to suggest how this can be done.

You can read the whole ERS paper here.