Attending a Postal Vote Opening

Last Thursday I was kindly allowed by my local Deputy Returning Officer to observe the process for opening postal ballots. I saw the postal ballots for the Edinburgh constituencies being opened, the personal identifiers (signatures and dates of birth) verified and the disallowed votes removed. I can happily confirm that postal vote agents, safely corralled behind a chain barrier, would not be able to see the votes on any of the ballot papers. At the session there were two SNP postal vote agents, who came concerned about postal vote sampling by other parties, but quickly realised there was nothing to see and wandered off.

Having read the procedure for opening ballots, I had naively assumed that the sampling of ballots took place when ballot papers were removed from the inner envelope. Having witnessed the process in operation it is clear that tallying of votes could potentially take place when the reverse sides of all the ballot papers are scanned to find the ballot papers matching personal statements that have failed the verification step. This was impossible in Edinburgh because the scanners had covers to prevent observers seeing the pile of ballot papers coming out of the scanner face-up, but the process does not follow the Electoral Commission guidance so there is nothing in the guidance to recommend that when ballot papers are scanned the scanner must be covered.

The Electoral Commission process specification for postal vote opening is:

Postal vote opening procedure
6.23 The processes to be followed when opening postal ballot packs are
provided for in legislation:
Stage 1: opening of the postal voters’ ballot box
 Count and record the number of returned postal ballot packs (i.e., the
number of envelopes ‘B’ in the postal voters’ ballot box).
 Open covering envelope ‘B’ and remove the postal voting statement and
ballot paper envelope.
 Check the number on the postal voting statement matches the number
on the ballot paper envelope (envelope ‘A’).
 Place a mark in the postal voters’ list or postal proxy voters’ list as
appropriate to show that a postal voting statement has been returned.
Stage 2: checking the personal identifiers
 Check that the elector has signed the statement and given a date of
 Check the signature and date of birth on the postal voting statement
matches those on the personal identifiers record.
 If you reject a postal voting statement, you must mark the statement
‘rejected’, attach to it the ballot paper envelope (if there is no such
envelope you must attach it to the ballot paper) and place it in the
receptacle for rejected votes. Before placing it in the receptacle, you
must show it to the agents and, if any of them object to your decision,
add the words “rejection objected to”. You should also record the reason
for the rejection.
Stage 3: opening of postal ballot paper envelopes
 Open the ballot paper envelope (envelope ‘A’) and remove the ballot
paper ensuring the ballot paper is kept face down at all times.
 Check the number on the ballot paper envelope (envelope ‘A’) matches
the number on the back of the ballot paper.
 Place the ballot paper in the postal ballot box.
Stage 4: sealing the postal ballot boxes
 Count and record the number of postal ballot papers to be sealed in
each postal ballot box.
 Seal and securely store the postal ballot boxes.

In this process the ballot paper is not opened until the personal identifier has been checked. The key stage in this process is Stage 2: checking the signature and date-of-birth returned with the ballot with the signature and date of birth on the application for a postal vote. The law requires 20% to be checked, but to prevent postal ballot fraud Returning Officers are encouraged to check 100%. Thousands of postal voting statements have to be matched with thousands of personal identifier records. It is hard to imagine how this would be done manually, so unsurprisingly the postal voting statements are scanned and matched with the pre-scanned personal identifier records using a computer system, supported by manual checking of all rejects. However, to scan them the personal voting statements have had to be separated from the ballot papers. To find the ballot papers associated with the personal identifiers that have not passed validation, due to missing dates, missing signatures, signatures not matching etc, it is then necessary to scan the reverse side of the actual ballot paper to match up the unique codes. Using standard scanners the pile of ballot papers are fed in reverse side up, but come out front side up. In Edinburgh the scanners were covered, but if they were not covered a postal vote agent would be able to see every vote being spit out of the scanner at a steady rate of one every two seconds. It is very difficult to imagine an agent doing this without it being obvious to anyone nearby that that is what they are doing.

I understand that that software incorporating signature comparison is now widely used to check identifiers supplied with postal votes, but it appears that this means that the processes used do not follow the Electoral Commission template and also creates a risk that the secrecy of voting will be compromised.

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Electoral Commission Advice on Postal Vote Sampling

In their Bulletin to electoral administration staff in Scotland and in England and Wales, published on 13th March 2015, the Electoral Commission included their view that the legislation prohibits the taking of tallies by postal vote agents at postal vote openings. The reminder was published only four weeks before the first postal ballot papers were sent out, with the bulletin noting that the Commission were “amending Part 5 of our guidance for candidates and agents at UK Parliamentary to make this point explicitly and expect to publish an updated version later today.” The Bulletin concluded: “We recognise that you may already have printed and distributed packs for prospective candidates, in which case you will need to consider how you can make candidates and their agents aware of this in some other way…”. The Commission have been aware of the risk of postal vote sampling since the McCarthy case in the 2010 General Election, and have also been aware since last September of the investigation into sampling during the Scottish referendum. The Commission spent six months claiming that returning officers were aware that they should not allow sampling and that postal vote agents were aware of the secrecy requirements, but this advice to returning officers across the UK is an admission that this has been a systemic problem in electoral administration.

The full text of the relevant section of the Electoral Commission’s English Bulletin is:

May polls 2015: tallying at postal vote openings

We have been asked for our view on the legality of tallying at postal vote opening sessions, and we can confirm that it is our view that the legislation prohibits it.

This is because, at a postal vote opening, it is not permissible to ‘attempt to ascertain the candidate for whom any vote is given in any particular ballot paper or communicate any information with respect thereto obtained at those proceedings (Section 66(4)(d) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended)). This provision therefore prevents those present at the postal vote opening from attempting to ascertain the way individual ballot papers are marked. This interpretation is consistent with Regulation 84 Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 which stipulates that, when opening the postal votes, the Returning Officer ‘shall keep the ballot papers face downwards and shall take proper precautions for preventing any person from seeing the votes made on the ballot papers’.

It is therefore clear that, at a postal vote opening, ballot papers are to be kept face down and individuals are not permitted to look at the ballot paper to attempt to see how it is marked.In the context of tallying, therefore, it is not the act of counting itself that is prohibited, but the necessary prerequisite of looking at the individual ballot papers to see how they are marked.

We are amending Part 5 of our guidance for candidates and agents at UK Parliamentary and local elections to make this point explicitly and expect to publish an updated version later
today. We recognise that you may already have printed and distributed packs for prospective candidates, in which case you will need to consider how you can make candidates and their
agents aware of this in some other way, such as by covering this in your briefing sessions and making clear at postal vote openings that tallying is not permitted.

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Scottish Parliament Report Touches on Electoral Fraud Allegations

Following the Electoral Commission submitting their report on the Referendum to the Scottish Parliament and the Devolution Committee hearing evidence from electoral administrators and from the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Committee has today published its Report on the Electoral Management of the Scottish Independence Referendum. The report is clear and makes a range of valuable recommendations for improving elections in Scotland and devolving responsibility for elections further. At 20 pages it is also a much more digestible read than the Electoral Commission’s 150 page magnum opus.

Tacked onto the end of a section headed Public understanding of the electoral process, the Devolution Committee’s report touches on the police investigation into the sampling of ballots at the opening of postal votes:

The Committee is aware that, in a very small number of cases, investigations are on-going into allegations of fraud relating to the counting of votes including into the counting of votes at postal vote opening sessions. Until such time as these investigations are concluded, it would not be appropriate to make any comment with regard to these specific allegations.

It is understandable that the Committee cannot comment in any detail on the investigation, but describing the allegations as being “a small number of cases” seems to downplay the significance of what was alleged and the scope of what is being investigated. The committee took as evidence that there is only a “very small number” of cases a report in the Sunday Post on 28th December that said “Police are currently probing 11 potential referendum frauds, including 10 in the Glasgow area”, but this is only refering to personation frauds, as further on the article says: “Police Scotland Superintendent Jim Baird added: ‘Our specialist crime division is currently investigating 11 potential impersonation offences. These relate to members of the public arriving at a polling station to vote, only to be told that someone else had already been in and used their identity to vote.”

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Indyref Postal Vote Sampling: 9 things we know & 1 we don’t.

  1. The counting of any postal votes seen by postal vote agents when the envelopes are opened is an offence in UK elections under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and was an offence in the Scottish Referendum under the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013;
  2. On May 3rd 2007 The Independent reported that the Labour Party had been sampling postal votes in East Dumbartonshire, Glasgow and Clackmannanshire in the Scottish parliament election. It appears that no action was taken by the police or the Electoral Commission following this disclosure;
  3. During the 2010 General Election campaign, Kerry McCarthy, the Labour candidate in Bristol East, tweeted the results of a sampling of postal votes. Ms McCarthy and her agent were cautioned by the police for publishing the information. No action was taken against anybody for collecting the information;
  4. On the night of the referendum Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, stated that Better Together had been counting postal votes at all openings of postal votes across Scotland. There have been other, less explicit references to postal vote sampling in the Referendum from Humza Yousaf, John McTernan and Susan Dalgety;
  5. When the Chief Counting Officer’s spokesman was asked about Ms Davidson’s claim, he responded that widespread sampling of postal votes could not have taken place because it would have been spotted by Counting Officer staff;
  6. That the police investigation following Davidson’s comments has continued for five months suggests that they have found evidence that postal votes were sampled, “tallies taken” and the results collated;
  7. The potential offences committed in the Scottish Referendum include Misconduct in Public Office by Counting Officers and their staff if they knowingly allowed tallies to be taken, conspiracy to commit SIRA Sch 7.7 secrecy offences by anyone who asked postal vote agents to collect tallies, and SIRA Sch 7.7 secrecy offences by anyone who attended a postal vote opening and took a tally or communicated the results of a tally to anyone else. Davidson, McTernan, Yousaf and Dalgety were not committing an offence by knowing that tallies existed or announcing this to the World;
  8. The first session for opening postal votes in Glasgow took place on 9th September and continued on every weekday to the 18th, with similar programmes of opening sessions in each council area. 20.4% of the votes cast across the country were postal votes. Davidson’s admission implies that Better Together will have been able to forecast the vote split of postal votes in some council areas from the 9th of September;
  9. The accepted story is that it was the Yougov poll on 7th September showing a narrow Yes lead that triggered the promising of further powers in the following week, but Davidson’s admission implies that the partners in Better Together may have seen data taken from postal vote samples from 9th September;
  10. The criminal investigation continues, but electors in May have no idea which Scottish politicians knew that postal votes were being illegally sampled.
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Putting Voters First?

The Electoral Commission was created following the recommendations of the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life produced by Lord O’Neill in 1998 which argued for “a totally independent and authoritative Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers, and the right to bring cases before an election court for judgement”.

11.8 In our view, a number of important consequences follow. The first is that the members of the Commission should not, in the normal course of events, be people who have previously been involved in any substantial way in party politics.

Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Lord O’Neill argued for an independent body, but what has evolved is a body increasingly brought within the influence of political parties.

Our ten Commissioners lead our strategy and set our priorities. They are independent of political parties – though our four most recently appointed Commissioners bring direct experience in political parties – and are accountable directly to Parliament.

Electoral Commission website.

The four most recently appointed commissioners, Lord Horam, David Howarth, Alasdair Morgan and Bridget Prentice, are all past politicians. How independent of political parties are they really?

The Electoral Commission’s notepaper includes the slogan “Putting Voters First”, but the Chief Executive’s declaration of meetings for the last year seems to involve meeting many administrators and politicians, but no run-of-the-mill voters.

At the presentation to the Scottish Parliament the Electoral Commission’s Director of Communication Alex Robertson outlined their policy towards electoral integrity. (It is salutary that Mr Robertson, the third most senior executive of the Commission, is a public relations specialist).

“I add that the key to confidence in any result is transparency on the part of the people who have a stake in the outcome. I thought that it was extremely powerful that campaigners and politicians who had cared passionately about the outcome came out and said that they had seen the process and that there was not a problem. Throughout the day, there were numerous opportunities for people to identify that something had gone wrong, because the process was incredibly transparent. If people who were there and who cared about the outcome just as much as the other side say that they saw the process and that people should have confidence in the result, that is a powerful way of fighting some of the stuff that came through afterwards.”

Alex Robertson, Director of Communication, Electoral Commission, 8th January, 2015 to Holyrood’s Devolution (Further Powers Committee).

The implication of this policy is that so long as none of the parties object, any practice is fine. It seems that in Scotland some party activits have stretched this doctrine to breaking point, but the Commission stands behind them, not objecting. Indeed Mr Robertson thinks he should be “fighting some of the stuff that came through afterwards”. Categorically, in relation to postal vote sampling, the Commission are fighting stuff that is true to protect their reputation and the reputation of the politicians. Do they really believe that they are “Putting Voters First”?

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Labour’s Non-Denial Denial of Postal Vote Sampling

Last Sunday and the Sunday before the Sunday Herald reported that Susan Dalgety, recently appointed as Jim Murphy’s Director of Communications, had tweeted comments implying she knew the results of postal vote sampling in the referendum. Tom Gordon reported that she “could face police questioning after discussing the content of secret postal votes in the referendum”, but this is unlikely because she isn’t directly being accused of an electoral offence, so it is hard to imagine what interviewing her could add to the ongoing police investigation. The more interesting things we have learnt from the two Sunday Herald stories are that the SNP are now willing to comment on the allegation and that Scottish Labour seem unable to respond to the allegation with a categorical denial.

‘An SNP source said: “Jim Murphy has made some very questionable appointments, which cast his party in a negative light. As well as being embarrassing, this issue takes Labour back to when they were joined at the hip with the Tories – it seems like they were sharing all sorts of information.”‘

When the claims of postal vote sampling first emerged in the days after the referendum nobody from the SNP commented, but now they seem willing to give this story a gentle push. Why has their position changed? There was the implication from Humza Yousaf’s comments on referendum night that Yes Scotland were also sampling postal votes, so it might be that it is now clear that the investigation is only going to impact on Better Together. But it might also be that the SNP have gleaned how damaging these allegations will be for the Labour Party.

When challenged on the allegations and knowing the allegations of postal vote sampling to be untrue, the Scottish Labour spokesman could have stated unequivocally that nobody associated with Scottish Labour had been involved in postal vote sampling, but they didn’t. Instead they responded with a non-denial denial.

‘A Scottish Labour spokesman said: “Susan Dalgety made her comments based on her extensive experience of elections and postal votes. It is not an offence to make an observation.”‘

If the allegations of vote sampling by Scottish Labour were categorically untrue surely their statement would have said so? The second sentence of their “denial” is a non-sequitur and the first cries out for the follow up question “Does Dalgety’s ‘extensive experience’ include ever seeing data taken from postal vote samplings or being aware of postal vote samplings?”

The most significant lessons from last week’s Sunday Herald article are that the Scottish Labour Party cannot put out a categorical denial that they were sampling postal votes and that the SNP know this.

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Scottish Labour’s Postal Vote Sampling in 2007: Acceptable in the Noughties?

I stumbled across a blog post by the London-based Tory blogger Iain Dale from 3rd May 2007. He highlights an article from that day’s Independent by Andy McSmith on Labour’s campaign for the Scottish parliament elections held that day, which Dale rightly describes as “deeply worrying”. After a bit of Googling I found the full text of the original article. As in the referendum, the article implies widespread illegal sampling of postal votes. On top of the action described being “worrying”, it is also disturbing that this description could appear in a national newspaper and no one, not the Electoral Commission, not the returning officers in Ochil or Kelvin or Strathkelvin & Bearsden, nor any journalists or politicians, other than Iain Dale, seems to have thought this admission in any way suspect.


Dale’s blog had, and still does have, a large following of people not naturally inclined to be sympathetic to Labour, so many of the comments below his post are anti-Labour abuse, but other comments provide an insight into how widespread is a misunderstanding of the relevant law and how commonplace the practice might have become.


Taking “samples for your own purposes to see how things are going” may be “often quite easy”, but it is more than “dodgy”, it is illegal. If we lived in a World where the Electoral Commission did their job of making sure that everyone understood what was and what wasn’t illegal, then publishing the results of postal vote sampling wouldn’t be “dodgy”, it would be reckless.

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Timing of Postal Vote Openings

Prior to 2001 the sampling of postal votes in elections was of little value to candidates and their agents because the number of postal votes was low and the envelopes were opened only shortly before the count, giving them little information and little time in which to use it. Prior to 2001 voters had to state a reason for applying for a postal vote or to obtain attestation of illness from a doctor. In February 2001 it became possible for anyone to get a postal vote on demand in Great Britain. This led to a massive rise in the proportion of votes in the UK General Elections from 2.3% in 1997 to 18.8% in 2010.


[Figures from House of Commons Library]

The rise in postal voting has not been equally spread, with eight of the top ten constituencies for postal voting in the 2010 General Election being in the North East of England. The popularity of postal voting in the North East may be a residual effect of the November 2004 Regional Referendum in which which all votes were cast by post.


[Figures from House of Commons Library]

With over fifty percent of voters in Houghton & Sunderland South voting by post, if candidates could have sampled from those postal votes ahead of the count they would have been able to make confident predictions of the final result, but even sampling from the national average of nearly 19% postal votes would give agents valuable information on how their campaigns were going.

The work required to open postal votes in the Referendum was also increased by the decision of the Chief Counting Officer to verify the identity statements of 100% of postal votes rather than the 20% required by the legislation. This thorough checking of identity information reduced the risk of fraudulent postal votes but increased the workload in postal vote openings. The workload caused by the high number of postal ballots coming in and the need to verify all signatures created pressure to start the opening of postal ballot envelopes as soon as postal ballots started coming in. In Glasgow the opening of postal ballots was started on Tuesday 9 September and continued everyday from then to polling day. I am waiting on responses from other councils to Freedom of Information requests for the timings of their opening of postal ballots, but if Glasgow’s timetable is typical, then the campaigns would have been getting data on the breakdown of postal votes from 9th September. This fits with McTernan’s admission of 14th September that Better Together had information on postal votes.

Opening of Postal Voters’ Ballot Papers in Glasgow

Date Place Start Time
Tuesday 9 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Wednesday 10 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Thursday 11 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Friday 12 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Monday 15 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Tuesday 16 September 2014 Room B.20, 40 John Street, Glasgow, G1 1JL 9.30am
Wednesday 17 September 2014 Emirates Arena, 1000 London Road, Glasgow 9.30am
Thursday 18 September 2014 Emirates Arena, 1000 London Road, Glasgow 6pm
Thursday 18 September 2014 Emirates Arena, 1000 London Road, Glasgow 10pm


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Why was the Electoral Commission report so uncritical of the conduct of the Referendum?

In December the Electoral Commission gave the conduct of the Scottish Independence Referendum a glowing endorsement. In the foreword to their review John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, states ” I am pleased to report that the referendum was well run”.

In a post last week I described how the concerns of many voters about the sampling of postal ballots implied by Davidson are almost relegated to a footnote in the Electoral Commission report on the referendum. Since then I have been pondering how McCormick can reconcile a definitive conclusion that the referendum was well run with an on-going police investigation into Davidson’s claim that: “We’ve had people at every sample opening around the country over the last few weeks; we’ve been incredibly encouraged by the results from that.”

The report describes (6.93, p141) the allegations as: ” postal voting agents had “sampled” votes at postal vote opening sessions around the country in the days before polling day. The suggestion was that the agents, who were nominated by the registered campaign groups and permitted to attend the sessions to ensure the process was conducted appropriately, had been able to see the outcome for which votes had been cast”“Had been able to..” is a tantalising switch into the subjunctive mood, but this was not “the suggestion”. The “suggestion” implied by Davidson’s remarks was that there was a coordinated conspiracy to break the Scottish Independence Referendum Act by asking postal vote agents to count the votes they saw, record the counts and return the results to the campaign headquarters for analysis; and this was the basis of my complaint to Police Scotland. Seeing the votes is not itself an offence, but trying to see them is an offence, counting the ones you see is an offence, and passing on that information to anyone else is an offence. The police investigation has found that the sampling of postal votes observed at postal vote openings  and the communication of those statistics were both taking place, but that those involved claim they were unaware that either practice was illegal. It is understandable that the Electoral Commission does not want to touch on who is being investigated, but it seems reasonable that their report accurately reflect the allegations that are being investigated.

It is clear from the investigation of these allegations and from earlier cases elsewhere in the UK that the current procedures for opening postal votes are unable to prevent postal vote agents being able to see how some postal votes have been cast between them being removed from the envelope and placed face down. It is also apparent, if we accept at face-value the claim that agents were unaware that these practices are illegal, that the notification of the secrecy requirements by providing postal vote agents with a copy of the relevant section of the legislation is inadequate. There is also an implication that some staff supervising the opening of postal votes were not aware that they should report any suspicion that any postal vote agent was counting to the police, which suggests that there were failures in the training of staff. These operational failures are not peculiar to the referendum; the Bristol East case in 2010 demonstrates that the procedures in General Elections are also susceptible. It is therefore surprising that the risk of secrecy being compromised at the opening of postal votes was not identified as a risk in the risk register template supplied to Counting Officers.

It is explicit in the legislation that the the Chief Counting Officer was “responsible for ensuring the proper and effective conduct of the referendum”, but the development of the guidelines for the conduct of the referendum was undertaken by the Electoral Management Board. The Electoral Management Board was advised by Andy O’Neill of the Electoral Commission, who attended all but two of the EMB meetings in 2013/14 and therefore was closely engaged in the planning of the Referendum. The Scottish Independence Referendum Act requires the Electoral Commission to report to the Scottish Parliament on the conduct of the referendum. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum voters with concerns about the process were encouraged by the Chief Counting Officer and the Electoral Commission to submit their complaints into the process developing this report. I have been told by the Electoral Commission that Andy O’Neill, adviser to the EMB, was responsible for producing the report. If the report had just been an account of the referendum, then this would not have been an issue; but once it became part of the process to review complaints and evaluated whether the referendum was or was not “well run”, then there was a clear conflict of interest. In contemporary jargon, he was being asked to mark his own homework. This conflict of interest might also explain the omission from the report of the criticisms made by SAA about the procedures for appointing emergency proxies that I discussed in an earlier post.

The procedures to prevent agents sampling postal votes are currently wholly inadequate. The Electoral Commission response to the 2010 case was to treat it as an isolated incident rather than identifying a systemic weakness, and this complacency has continued in their downplaying of the alleged offences in the Referendum. With four months to go to the General Election, the Electoral Commission should be urgently taking steps to stamp this practice out.

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Problems with appointing Emergency Proxies in the Scottish Referendum

On 18th December Mary Pitcaithly, the Chief Counting Officer, and Ian Milton, the Chair of the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA) Electoral Registration Committee, were questioned for an hour by the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee. The obscure question in this clip from Lewis Macdonald MSP is a reference to problems for registration officers in dealing with requests for emergency proxies right up until the afternoon of referendum day. The problems are described in a review of the referendum prepared by Ian Milton for the Scottish Assessors Association’s Electoral Registration Committee and submitted to the Parliament. The SSA criticise the Electoral Commission’s design of the forms and the timescales required by the legislation. Ian Milton states in this clip that the report was shared with the Electoral Commission, but absolutely nothing about problems with emergency proxies is mentioned in the Electoral Commission’s review of the conduct of the referendum. Voters raising concerns about the referendum were channelled towards the Electoral Commission with an expectation that the Commission’s review would address procedural issues, but in not addressing the problems with emergency proxies raised by the SAA it seems that the Electoral Commission has a blind-spot over alleged failures in its own processes.

The SSA report states that these problems made “the carrying out of any checks to preserve the integrity of the absent voting system, or indeed the notification of the outcome within the necessary timeframe virtually impossible”. The Electoral Commission report tells us that 6690 emergency proxies were appointed, but we are completely in the dark about whether these problems led to legally valid applications for emergency proxies either not being appointed or not being communicated in time, or invalid applications having proxies appointed.

Appendix: Relevant Section from SAA Report

Note: the timetable’s dates are coded as days prior to the referendum, so R-0 is the day of the referendum and R-11 is eleven days before the referendum, with E-6 being six days before an election.

Emergency Proxies

The emergency proxy provisions were extremely unsatisfactory. Normal election timetables allow postal vote applications up to E-11 and proxy applications up to E-6. For the referendum, the 5pm R-11 ‘cut-off date’ applied to both postal and proxy applications, but non-attested emergency proxy applications could be submitted up to midnight on R-6, thereafter attested applications could be made until 5pm on R-0 (18 September).

This confused all parties to the process.

Eligibility for an emergency proxy had been recently extended for the European Parliamentary Elections on 22 May 2014 to include unforeseen absences due to occupation, service or employment commitments. SIRA widened the eligibility criteria further to include any unforeseen unavoidable absence.

The broad eligibility criteria, electors’ confusion around time limits and attestation, and the potential wide interpretation of what constituted an unforeseen unavoidable absence created significant challenges for EROs. This was compounded with the late provision/availability of the Electoral Commission’s application forms (2 September) and their poor design – with no email/phone contact information requested for the proxy or supporter. The lack of email/telephone contact details for proxies in particular was extremely regrettable as it made communication of the application outcome extremely difficult particularly for applications made after R-6.

The forms also confused disability with medical emergency, as disability would normally be considered to be an ongoing condition that the elector would usually be aware of on/before R-11 and thus be able to make arrangements to vote by post or proxy as is the case for any elector.

The supporter requirements where attestation was required were extremely weak, with the any unavoidable absence option which only needed to be supported by any over 18 year old who knows the applicant essentially undermining the in-employment supporter requirements. Normally medical emergency proxy supporters must hold a specified medical-related qualification (this was not a requirement for SIRA) and the more rigorous employment emergency proxy supporter statement (again not required by SIRA) cannot be circumvented by the catch-all any other unavoidable reason supported by anybody who knows the applicant provided by SIRA.

There was widespread misuse/abuse of the emergency proxy provisions with electors making last minute applications to vote by proxy where they were clearly missed the absent vote cut-off date deadline of R-11. Some unsuccessful applicants made repeated applications and ERO resources were again placed under undue strain to deal with the widespread misuse/abuse of the emergency proxy provisions. One ERO referred a clear example of a fraudulent application to Police Scotland but was advised that an investigation was unlikely to be an effective use of resource.

The 5pm deadline for applications on R-0 (18 September) and the failure for any telephone/email contacts information to be required and therefore available to EROs made the carrying out of any checks to preserve the integrity of the absent voting system, or indeed the notification of the outcome within the necessary timeframe virtually impossible for EROs. Some 6,000 emergency proxy applications were allowed by EROs.

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