Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: what’s to see ahead of stage 3

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This blog looks at the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill ahead of stage 3 proceedings on 3 June 2020. In particular, the blog highlights central areas of debate at stage 1, key changes at stage 2 and what to look out for at stage 3.

A SPICe briefing on the Bill is available.

Background to the Bill

Under the Scotland Act 2016 the Scottish Parliament and Government have powers and responsibilities relating to elections to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government’s 2018/19 Programme for Government included a commitment to introduce an Electoral Reform Bill.

The Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill was introduced in the Parliament on 2 September 2019. The Bill sets out changes to electoral law for Scottish Parliament and local government elections in Scotland, including:

  • changing term lengths for elections from four to five years for the Scottish Parliament and local government
  • allowing two and five member council wards in addition to three and four member wards
  • prohibiting voting more than once at local authority elections held on the same day
  • enabling electronic voting for local authority elections
  • introducing a name change for the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to Boundaries Scotland, and
  • changing the funding arrangements so that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body becomes financially responsible for the work of the Electoral Commission in relation to Scotland and the Commission accountable to the Scottish Parliament for the work it carries out on Scottish elections.

Stage 1

The Parliament’s Standards Procedures and Public Appointments Committee supported the four key proposals of the Bill.

The Committee concluded in its stage 1 report that “the balance of evidence supports a move to five year terms for both” Scottish Parliament and local elections in Scotland.  

Likewise, the Committee supported the proposal to allow two and five member electoral wards at council level (at present each ward has three or four members apart from island wards which can have one or two members wards). The Committee did, however, flag concerns around the impact that two member wards could have on proportionality, and recommended that they only be used in “very exceptional circumstances such as remoter rural areas.”

The Committee also favoured the proposed change to make it an offence to vote more than once in local government elections held on the same day, thereby bringing local elections in line with Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament elections.

One area which was discussed, but which the Committee did not take a view on, was whether the law should be changed so than an individual can only appear on the electoral register in one area. As the law stands, electors resident in more than one place are able to appear on the electoral register for more than one constituency or ward. This is often, for example, the case for students who may have a term time residence but also fulfil residence requirements at their home address. Likewise, some individuals may live in one place for work reasons during the week but have another permanent family residence and they may pay council tax on both residences.

“The Committee has not taken a position on this subject, but instead notes the arguments for and against such a proposal. On one hand, this would reduce the likelihood that a person would be able to vote twice. If a person (for example a student) happened to away from the constituency in which they were registered, they could apply for a postal vote. On the other hand, there is an argument that appearing on more than one register would make it easier for individuals who had links to more than one constituency to vote.”

The Bill does not provide for electronic voting pilots, nor does it require such pilots to take place. Section 6 of the bill does, however, contain enabling provisions for electronic voting. The Committee considered that this was the right approach and that “electronic voting has the potential to improve the efficiency and accessibility of the electoral system in Scotland.” The Committee did, however, sound a note of caution stating that:

“there is a need to proceed with caution in relation to relatively untested technology. The proposal to undertake pilots is welcome, as is the focus on smaller scale improvements to enhance the accessibility of the voting process. The Committee believes it is sensible that the Scottish Government has ruled out the prospect of internet voting or any proposals for the electronic transmission of voting information.”

One of the areas which gained a significant amount of attention at stage 1, was the so called ‘list order effect’. Candidates’ names are listed alphabetically by surname on ballot papers for local government elections in Scotland and there is debate as to whether candidates nearer the top of the list are more likely to be ranked ‘1’ on ballot papers using the Single Transferable Vote system (STV) which is used in local government elections.

This is not something included in the provisions of the Bill, albeit the Scottish Government consultation had touched on the issue. In its stage 1 report, the Committee stated:

“The Committee is clear that there is evidence that a list order effect exists, particularly in relation to STV elections. The Committee believes that this situation is potentially unfair to certain candidates in elections…The Committee notes, however, that there is no consensus on how the list order effect should be addressed…there is the risk of unintended consequences if a new system is introduced without proper research as to its impact…Any changes to the ballot paper should be piloted first and these pilots should be properly assessed to determine the impact of ballot design on vote behaviour, accessibility, and fairness to candidates.”

The Committee recommended that the Scottish Government ask the Electoral Commission to take a wider look at the alternatives to the current ordering system (in September 2019 the Electoral Commission reported on the impact on voters of any changes to the ordering of candidates on ballot papers for Scottish council elections) before considering “whether there would be merit in piloting any specific alternatives and report back to the Parliament on the proposed approach.”

Stage 2

Stage 2 saw a number of technical amendments agreed to, including:

  • Review periods of 15 years for local government boundary reviews, subject to the introduction of five-year terms (amendment 20)
  • Moving the deadline for Scottish Parliament reviews to 2025, rather than 2024 (amendment 21) thus allowing Boundaries Scotland to submit its proposals 12 months before the Scottish Parliament elections in 2026
  • Granting the Scottish Parliament an oversight role in relation to the activities of the Electoral Commission or devolved Scottish elections (amendments 10 to19). This group of amendments contained provisions relating to the reimbursement of expenditure and the date by which income and expenditure estimates must be made by the Electoral Commission
  • Removal of any need for separate codes to be produced by the Electoral Commission for observers at local government and Scottish Parliament elections
  • Transferring the statutory evaluation role of pilot schemes from the local authority which carries out the pilot to the Electoral Commission

One issue to return for debate at stage 2 was the matter of two member wards. Mark Ruskell MSP argued for the provision to allow two member wards (other than for island communities) to be removed from the Bill (amendment 22). The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, Graeme Dey MSP, argued that as drafted the amendment would affect the wards of island communities (provided for by the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018).

Mr Dey stated that he had listened to the concerns of members that two members wards not be overused as he proposed amendment 23. The amendment he argued during the stage 2 proceedings highlighted “the existing duty…on the boundary commission to balance the need to ensure parity in relation to the number of councillors per voter in a local government area with the need to respect any special geographical considerations.”

Amendment 22 was withdrawn and amendment 23 agreed to.

Jeremy Balfour MSP lodged amendment 1 which sought to provide for a pilot scheme for blind and partially sighted voters. The amendment provided that Ministers undertake at least one pilot scheme with the purpose of “developing and improving methods to ensure voters who are blind or partially-sighted can vote independently without any need for assistance and in secret, screened from observation on the same terms as any typical voter” by December 2024.

Mr Dey expressed support for the aims of Mr Balfour’s amendment 1 but expressed concerns about how it connected to the current system of pilots. Mr Dey highlighted progress made to sate in the area and committed to considering the matter further ahead of stage 3:

“That said, I commit today to consider further with him in advance of stage 3 whether it would be possible to make changes in this area.”

Amendment 1 was withdrawn.

Stage 3

Sixteen amendments have been lodged at stage 3 with all bar one being Government amendments.

There are a number of technical amendments as well as one concerning the Electoral Commission accounts which provides a requirement for the Commission’s certified accounts to be laid before the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body and the Scottish Parliament. 

Amendments 1, 2 and 10 in the name of Minister Graeme Dey MSP are concerned with voting by disabled people. Amendment 10 provides for the Electoral Commission to prepare a report after a Scottish election which “must include a description of the steps taken by returning officers to assist disabled persons”.

Colin Smyth MSP’s amendment 16 is likewise concerned with voting by disabled people and enables Ministers to “provide for a feasibility study for indents on ballot papers or any other identification method for voters who are blind or partially sighted” with local authorities able to submit a proposal for a feasibility study to Scottish Ministers. The amendment would place a duty on Ministers to report to the Parliament on the result of the feasibility study within three years.

The matter of ward sizes has also returned, with the Minister proposing amendments 11 and 12 which would require Boundaries Scotland to include in its report an explanation as to the reasons for recommending a two member ward (except in the case of island communities already able to have two member wards under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018).

The stage 3 debate is scheduled to take place on Wednesday 3 June 2020.