The Electoral Management Board for Scotland (EMB) is a very odd public sector organisation, whose self-proclaimed prime focus is “ensuring that the interests of the voter are kept at the centre of all elections planning and administration”. EMB coordinated the Scottish Independence Referendum. Until I started investigating Ruth Davidson’s claim that Better Together had taken tallies of votes cast as postal ballots were opened, I was not aware in detail of how EMB is structured. The governance of EMB is troubling because its board is made up of professionals who are inside the process (Electoral Registration Officers and Counting Officers) and it is unclear what audit processes exist in its guidance to assure the integrity of the counts in each council. Basic principles of good governance would suggest a body overseeing a process as significant as local elections and national referendums should have independent (i.e. not just electoral registration officers and returning officers) on its board and require independent audit of the procedures in individual council areas. Returning officers have enormous autonomy, with EMB supplying “guidance”, and it is unclear to me how Counting Officers’ operations are monitored or audited. These problems are exacerbated because the activities of Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers fall outside the scope of Freedom of Information legislation. In contacting the EMB to argue that Ms Davidson’s comments deserve investigation, where the implication is that there might be wholesale tacit collusion to allow postal vote counting by postal vote agents (possibly by both sides), I realise that I might be asking the people at the heart of this collusion to investigate themselves. In the ugly modern cliche, EMB get to mark their own homework.
These weaknesses are clear from their self-description on their website:
“The Electoral Management Board for Scotland (EMB) was created by the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Act 2011, which gave the Board “the general function of co-ordinating the administration of Local Government elections in Scotland.” This involves two specific roles:
assisting local authorities and other persons in carrying out their functions in relation to Local Government elections; and
promoting best practice in Local Government elections by providing information, advice or training (or otherwise).
The Board is composed of eight members; five are Returning Officers (or their Deputes) and three are Electoral Registration Officers. These are appointed by a Convener, who is in turn appointed by Scottish Ministers following a process of open competition. Advisors from the professional associations working in electoral administration, SOLAR and the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), also attend the Board meetings. The Electoral Commission, the Scottish Government, Scotland Office and COSLA also have representatives at each meeting, acting as official advisors to provide support and advice.
The EMB’s prime focus is ensuring that the interests of the voter are kept at the centre of all elections planning and administration. Much use is made of the close community of electoral professionals in Scotland and it seeks to operate by consensus rather than formal direction, wherever possible. However, the Convener does have a power to issue directions to Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers in relation to their duties around Local Government elections if required. This power was used in 2012 with respect to the timing of the Count.”