Five ways we can revive our elections in Scotland

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 22nd March 2018

There is much to admire about the way elections are held in Scotland. Generally speaking, they are transparent, accessible, and ensure seats match how people actually vote at the ballot box.

But that isn’t to say that Scottish Parliamentary elections and local elections can’t be improved.

The Scottish Government have recognized this – which is why they have been asking for people’s views through its Consultation on Electoral Reform which closes on March 29th.

Electoral Reform Society Scotland has set out what changes need introducing to ensure our elections are as modern and engaging as possible.

  1. A 50:50 candidate requirement to address the gender imbalance in elected office

Women make up 51% of Scotland’s population – yet fewer than 35% of MSPs are women.

Sadly, there are few signs of progress. In the Scottish Parliament election in May 2016, 45 women MSPs (35%) were elected, the exact same proportion as in 2011.

The ERS supports Women 50:50’s call for new legislation ensuring all parties have to put forward at least 50% women candidates in the Scottish Parliament and local elections.

  1. Voting at weekends

There are some historical reasons why elections have traditionally been held on Thursdays – but we no longer need to hold to that dogma.

We know that there is still a way to go in improving turnout: turnout at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election was 55.6% on the constituency vote, and 55.8% on the regional vote, while overall turnout for last year’s local elections was 46.9%.

Countries which utilise weekend voting generally have a higher turnout. Why not have it in Scotland?

  1. Allow people to vote at any polling station

Under current rules, people are required to vote at their assigned polling station. This is usually the nearest polling station to a voter’s home address.

But the assigned polling station is not always the most convenient.

One example would be where someone has been required to work in a different part of the country at short notice and so is unable to arrange for a postal or proxy vote.

Allowing people to vote at any polling station removes a barrier to voting, which could improve turnout.

And that could be easily achieved by having a unified electoral register – rather than the devolved mish-mash we have now.

  1. Improve levels of representation with a boost in councillors

Here is a worrying fact: Scotland is the least democratic country in the European Union in terms of representation at council-level.

This is because Scotland elects fewer people to make its decisions than anywhere else. As a result, councils are far ‘bigger’ in the areas they speak for, and are attempting to represent too many people over too broad an area.

As a comparison, in France, one in every 125 people is an elected community politician. In Germany it is one in 400, and in Finland it is one in 500.

In Scotland, the figure is one in 4,270. That  means that elected politicians are removed from the communities they are elected to represent.

ERS Scotland proposes smaller council wards with more members, within a new and ‘lower’ layer of local government – helping to transform councillors from points of complaint to active community activists.

  1. Make it easier for vulnerable people to register to vote anonymously.

For a decade now, people who may be at risk for having their name included on the electoral register have been able to sign-up to vote anonymously.

This makes sense – even the restricted version of the register is available for public inspection and the inclusion of vulnerable people’s names and address could place them in danger.

But survivors of domestic abuse have had difficulties with providing the required evidence or having access to the people who could attest to the fact they could be put in harm’s way.

We need an improved anonymous system of registration for these people, allowing lower ranked police officers and other professionals able to support applications.

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