ERS Cymru warmly welcomes the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill. We support the idea of bringing elections in Wales into the modern age and the aim of removing barriers for voters. It is right that with devolution of elections to Wales, we consider how we can create a democracy that really works for the people of Wales.
It is important that this legislation is seen as a wider package of democratic reform with the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill and any forthcoming legislation around gender quotas.
We have outlined our views on some of the main areas of the Bill below.
Electoral Management Board of the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru
Wales currently lacks a specific body to oversee democracy. While the Welsh Government and the Senedd as an institution both undertake a number of activities around elections and engagement with the public, oversight should be at an arm’s length basis. This could be in a body that would take a strategic view on democracy including at elections. The creation of the Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru (DBCC) in the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill has the potential to fill this gap.
We have previously called for the creation of an Electoral Management Board (EMB) and are pleased to see provisions for its establishment in this Bill. It is logical that the EMB should sit within the DBCC.
One thing that will be key to the success of the new EMB, and indeed the DBCC, is engagement with stakeholders and partners. Since the extension of the franchise, multiple networks have been established to bring together partners working with newly enfranchised groups or those less likely to be registered to vote. ERS Cymru coordinates the Democracy Group Cymru, a network of about 50 organisations across Wales, which works to bring together organisations undertaking activities around democracy and elections and to share best practice and developments. The Welsh Government also convenes a Democratic Engagement Partnership Group. While these groups may or may not continue with the creation of the DBCC and the EMB, it is vital that these kinds of networks continue to exist. For example, the legislation provides for the EMB to be made up of a Commissioner from the DBCC (to act as Chair), with further members consisting of EROs and ROs. We do not take issue with this, but the board’s engagement with the third sector, who often represent groups that are either newly enfranchised or less likely to be registered, will be vital. A joined up approach should be taken.
In terms of the functions of the EMB, as we set out in our response to the Welsh Government’s White Paper on Electoral Reform and Administration in January 2023 – data collection and publication should be one of its responsibilities. The publication of election results data in Scotland is currently far more consistent than that in Wales. For example, after the 2022 local elections, local authorities in Scotland published their election results data using the same proforma, whereas in Wales the data published was in a different format across all 22 local authorities. Data publication is one area where we think an Electoral Management Board for Wales could take a pan-Wales approach. Taking a standardised approach would mean results are clearer and all of the relevant data is published by all local authorities. It would also provide a location to publish overall results data, as the EMB for Scotland currently does.
Electoral registration without application
We warmly welcome the provisions in the legislation to provide for electoral registration without application. Simplifying electoral registration for voters will go a long way in removing barriers to our democracy. As the Electoral Commission have found, around 260,000 eligible electors in Wales are not registered to vote, just shy of 10%. Data also shows that some groups are less likely to be registered than others, with young people, EU nationals and people who have recently moved house and those in the private rental sector among the least likely.
Registering eligible electors without application will level the playing field, but it is vital that automatic registration is administered effectively. As such, we welcome the idea of a pilot and evaluation period.
There are many questions that can be addressed during this period. While we note a Notice of Registration will be sent to eligible electors when they are added to the register, it is unclear when people will expect these notices. Given this, it is important that Ministers set out how people will be aware if they have been missed from the register without an application process? We have previously called for an accessible and easy way to check if you are registered, ideally through an online portal, and would hope that a way to deliver this is developed.
We would also suggest that ahead of any devolved elections a letter should be sent out reminding each individual that they are registered, of the election date and signposting people to further information ahead of casting their vote. A similar letter is sent to residents in Estonia, where AVR is used, ahead of elections. We have provided a copy of the most recent letter to the Committee alongside this written evidence.
We strongly agree with the removal of the open register in relation to devolved elections. The combination of an AVR system and an open electoral register would increase opportunities for fraud and the undermining of privacy due to the larger possibility of data linkages to be made between Personally Identifiable Information held on the systems. Moreover, the sale of the open electoral registers is currently common practice and should be curtailed due to potential for misuse and privacy infringements. The removal of the open register under AVR would mitigate these dangers. The data of people who are registered to vote should not be for commercial sale and should not turn a profit. The data provided is given in good faith so that a member of the populus can take an active part in the democratic process of voting.
The provisions in the Bill to allow application for anonymous registration during the 45 day notice period are essential to ensure anonymous registration is still possible under a system without application. It is vital that information on how to apply for anonymous registration is clear and the process is as simple as possible. It is unclear from the Bill and accompanying Explanatory Memorandum whether anonymous registration would need to be re-applied for on a yearly basis, as is the current method under the Individual Electoral Registration process. Also whether the current procedure of Electoral Registration Officers sending a yearly reminder to reapply for anonymous registration would remain in place for those anonymously registered. These processes and safety nets become ever more crucial under an AVR system and thus communication is key, especially as some of those affected may have simply avoided registering to vote previously.
There is little information currently available about what form the pilot, or pilots, on automated registration would take. We would welcome further information around this as soon as possible. It could be useful to undertake pilots which target traditionally under-represented groups and those that will likely be hard to register or verify the identification of, for example private renters, students and people with no fixed abode. It would be beneficial to assess how well AVR works in these contexts. AVR could also be piloted within a local authority area and then comparisons made between the completeness of the register there to a non AVR using local authority.
Welsh elections piloting
We have long welcomed the idea of piloting and testing different electoral innovations in Wales. Many countries across the world take a different approach to democracy, and further pilots in Wales will allow for us to explore whether such innovation would strengthen Welsh democracy. The pilots in 2022, although limited in number and geographical spread, demonstrated that processes such as electronic registers allowing a vote to be cast outside of a voter’s regular polling station, and having a polling station open for numerous days rather than just election day, could be delivered. It is now time to build on this experience.
The provisions for further pilots in the Elections and Elected Bodies Bill go further than the existing provisions in the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. We welcome this development as this legislation is much more comprehensive and allows for a broader range of pilots to be undertaken. We also welcome the stronger provisions around who can suggest pilots, which allows for much more oversight and collaboration.
The power to compel a pilot is something we also support. All four of the local authorities who opted to take part in the advance voting pilots in 2022 were from the more urban areas of south central and south east Wales and were fairly small in terms of land-area. A power direction that would enable Welsh Ministers to compel a local authority to pilot electoral innovations would be a good tool in widening the areas involved and ensuring a balance across the geographies and demographics of the 22 Welsh local authorities.
Pilots to solve specific issues, for example increasing voting options in the more dispersed rural communities of Wales, could be targeted to those local authorities that would provide the best fit. Support and resources would need to be made available so that no local authority was disadvantaged by being involved in future pilots. It is also key that compelling a pilot is not the first port of call in terms of working with a local authority to ensure a pilot is held. Conversations with local authorities should be constructive and begin much earlier in the electoral cycle than ahead of the 2022 elections.
The challenge with changing the way that people can vote will always be how best to communicate it to the public. During the 2022 pilots, given the small number of areas taking part and the short time scale for planning, it was difficult to communicate to people that they had the chance to vote in different places and on different days. Indeed only 22-30% of people reported they were aware they could vote before election day across the pilot areas, according to the Electoral Commission. If this was rolled out in further, larger pilots or on a national scale it would require a much larger communications campaign, which in theory could be easier given it could be more widely targeted. A communication campaign should also begin much earlier in the electoral cycle. The voter information platform also provided for in this legislation should contain information on this, for example plugging into an extension of the Democracy Club’s ‘where do I vote?’ platform.
In evidence to the Committee on the 26th October the Counsel General confirmed there would be no pilots before 2026 except for pilots around automated registration. It would be useful to get an insight into whether there will be further pilots at the elections in 2026 and 2027.
Place a duty on Welsh Ministers to put arrangements in place aimed at improving diversity within the Senedd and local government members
Overall, we support the measures to improve diversity in elected office within this Bill. We look forward to the introduction of legislation around gender quotas, to see what other areas are in consideration in relation to diversity.
Duty to assist disabled voters
We support the principle of additional duty being placed on the Electoral Commission with respect to reporting on the steps taken by ROs at elections to assist disabled people at Senedd and local government elections in Wales. However, the Commission should properly engage with disabilities organisations and disabled voters to assess how this can best be done in practice. It is important that these changes are communicated effectively to those who will be affected so that they know more support is available.
We also support secondary legislation to provide equipment to support disabled people being able to vote independently, and believe the guidance to do this should be co-produced with those key stakeholders affected by such legislation.
There is also a question of whether the voter information platform contained in the Bill would be able to host information on the accessibility of polling stations or the equipment provided at individual stations. This could streamline access to information for disabled voters.
Diversity of representation in elected office
We welcome the provisions in section 29 of the legislation to formalise what is currently referred to as the Access to Elected Office Fund. Disabled candidates can incur additional costs and need additional support when standing for elected office. So, a scheme for financial assistance to help disabled candidates overcome barriers must continue. We hope that the scheme can build upon the success of the 2021 and 2022 pilots and take forward the recommendations of the review of the fund, published this July.
Section 29 of the Bill also provides for schemes of financial assistance to be put in place to support others with specified characteristics or circumstances. We support this broadening of criteria for financial support and have long called for an extension of the Access to Elected Office Fund or the introduction of a similar, wider scheme. For example, covering childcare costs during a campaign would be useful for those with childcare responsibilities. An assessment of which costs provide barriers for candidates should be undertaken, and it would be helpful to get an assessment from the Welsh Government on what particular schemes they may be considering ahead of the 2026 and 2027 elections.
More broadly, in relation to section 28 of the legislation, we support the duty being placed on Welsh Ministers to put in place provisions to improve the diversity and representation of elected representatives in Wales. We also welcome coaching and mentoring being specifically stated as an area of support in the Bill. Schemes like the Equal Power Equal Voice programme have a key role in encouraging a much wider range of people to stand for election.
One thing that will be critical in improving the diversity of representation in elected office in Wales is going to be the provision of data. Data collection must be improved to understand where gaps currently lie and where progress is being made. We explore this point further in our evidence relating to the flexibility of the local government candidate survey, and we await further details on what measures are likely to be within the forthcoming legislation around gender quotas on this. A survey or collection of data around Senedd candidates is also vital, and we hope this will be included in some way in the forthcoming legislation.
Allowing more flexibility for the local government candidate survey
We strongly agree with the provisions to improve the flexibility of the local government candidate survey by removing the requirement for the specific wording and format of the survey to be in the regulations. The last local government candidate survey in Wales only had an overall return rate of 12% with 19% for county council candidates. The low response rate was partly due to the survey being delayed as a result of the extra complexities in amending it given the wording provided for in the regulations.
Measures should also be taken to increase its take up. We are unclear at present whether measures to collect better candidate data will be in forthcoming legislation around gender quotas. We have long argued that the collection and publication of candidates’ demographic data is vital in measuring the effectiveness of provisions to increase the diversity of our elected representatives. If these measures are contained in the forthcoming legislation then we would welcome information on how that would interact with the local government candidates survey. If those measures are not contained in the forthcoming legislation, or are not as strong as we would like in terms of requiring candidates share or parties collect this information, much more must be done to improve the uptake of the local government candidate survey. A similar survey should also be developed for Senedd elections.
Require a voter information platform that can host candidate and voter information for Senedd and ordinary principal council elections
Following the 2022 local elections the Democracy Group Cymru, facilitated by ERS Cymru and the Politics Project, held a workshop with members to identify what measures could be introduced to boost engagement in devolved elections in Wales. Many of the recommendations co-produced at this session were around voter information and education. While many different organisations across Wales produce a range of really good resources on democracy and elections, there is no one place that voters can go to easily access all of this information.
A voter information platform would provide that ‘one stop shop’ for voters to view information around elections on an accessible and easily searchable site, for example on a ‘vote.wales’ specific url.
In terms of what information this site should contain or signpost to, there are a number of particular areas we know voters would like more information on.
Those basic areas would be:
- Registration- how to register to vote, or in the case of a rollout of automated registration, signposting on how to check if you are registered
- What the election is about- e.g. what the Senedd does, how it relates to Welsh Government and the role of Members of the Senedd
- Who the candidates are- linking to personal statements
- The process of casting a vote- polling station locator, different voting options and what to expect in each (e.g. what to expect in a polling station and how to cast a vote there)
- Where to seek advice and support- this would be particularly useful for questions about accessibility
Some of this information already exists, for example the Democracy Club hosts a polling station finder and a search tool to find out who your candidates are. The Electoral Commission and the Senedd have some good resources on different elections. The Democracy Box has also outlined the story of democracy that every citizen should know. The voter information platform should bring all of this together in one place.
Given some of the information required is already available, a mapping exercise would be hugely helpful in planning the voter information platform. The Politics Project would be worth engaging in this mapping as they collate many of the existing resources at election time. Discussions with providers of the existing information should also take place to allow for collaboration – this platform should take a partnership approach.
We have also seen some testing of ideas in some local authorities that we believe could be worthwhile rolling out. For example in Merthyr for the local elections in 2022 a candidate statement, saying who the candidates were and why they wanted to be a councillor was available for many of the candidates. Building on the work of the Democracy Club’s https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ site, which holds some candidate statements, however the amount varies by area, would be really useful if rolled out on a national level. While this is something we support we are also aware of the risks in terms of what candidates might want to put online there in some cases. As such, guidance should be produced, for example on what candidates’ statements should contain and not contain, word lengths and formats.
In light of these organisations already having a lot of the content that would be useful for a voter information platform, whoever leads on the delivery of the platform should engage with these stakeholders in the platform’s development.
There is also a question of who runs and manages this platform. Currently the Bill places a duty on Welsh Ministers to provide for the establishment and management of a voter information platform. In practice this could be delivered by the DBCC or elements could be managed by an EMB.
In summary, we are really pleased to see provisions around a voter information platform within the Bill. We strongly believe this can be an iterative process, ideally in place for the 2026 and 2027 elections that can be built upon. Considerations should also be made about how those who are digitally excluded can access better voter information ahead of an election. As such, we welcome provisions in the legislation that the information on the platform can be available other than by electronic means. Our recommendation for an additional one pager containing information for voters to be sent to every eligible voter ahead of the election, as takes place in Estonia, would go a long way to complimenting an online resource. Taken together, these measures would provide a comprehensive set of information and signposting for voters ahead of any election.
Hold candidates and agents accountable for notional expenditure only where directed or authorised, and clarify third party campaigning rules
We note that these changes will bring the devolved arrangements in line with changes at a UK level that were made in the UK Government’s Elections Act 2022.
We were disappointed that measures to tighten the regulation of political finance – as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life ‘regulating election finance’ report – were not included in the Elections Act 2022.
It is important that there is a robust and transparent regime for political finance that applies to both parties and campaigners without stifling democratic debate and participation. To that end we support the recommendations of the CSPL and would like to see them implemented at a UK level.
However, we also recognise that there is the potential for confusion if the regulatory framework differs for different elections. Whilst we would like to see more done at the UK level, these changes make sense in terms of ensuring consistency across elections.
While we have welcomed this Bill and its efforts to remove barriers that voters face, there is one big reform missing from this legislation that could really transform Welsh democracy. The current voting system for local authority elections is not fit for purpose and reform to the local government voting system is sorely needed.
While councils are now able to vote to move to the Single Transferable Vote (STV), the specific requirements to do this ensure that only the status quo is incentivised. Councils will have to incur their own costs to move to STV at present.
There are significant issues with Welsh local democracy including uncontested seats, disproportionate results and ultimately voters feeling they lack choice. Unless a full reform of the voting system for local elections in Wales is commenced, these issues will remain despite the positive changes contained in this legislation.
As we have said in our evidence regarding the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill, after the legislation is passed communication to voters around the changes is going to be vital.
Joined up and clear communication of the changes coming in ahead of the 2026 Senedd elections are crucial in ensuring that people are being brought along in that journey. This will involve working across the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill, Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill and the forthcoming bill on gender quotas to provide a clear narrative that covers all of the changes to Welsh democracy for voters.