In January ERS Cymru submitted our response to the Welsh Government’s Electoral Reform and Administration White Paper consultation. This consultation asked questions around a range of issues ERS has long campaigned for; improved registration process, removing barriers to elections and improving information and citizenship education.
This briefing is a summary of our response.
An all Wales database of electoral registration data
The move to a single electronic register is long overdue and something that will enable wider modernisation of the registration process. As such, the introduction of an all-Wales database of electoral registration data is something that ERS Cymru would very much welcome and could have several positive impacts.
Firstly, an all-Wales database would help facilitate future pilot studies around improving access to voting. The 2021 advance voting pilots proved that a digital register can work and there is evidence that Returning Officers found it easier than the traditional paper register, especially with regards to voters being able to cast their vote on different days and/or in one of multiple locations.
Secondly, an all-Wales database could facilitate a look-up function for individuals to check if they are registered to vote and where to vote. This would alleviate some of the issues in the current registration system, particularly in relation to duplicate applications processed by electoral administrators, which cause considerable time and cost burdens at election time. If coupled with a move to automated registration, as discussed later in the White Paper, it could likely reduce incidences of unregistered voters mistakenly showing up at polling stations on election day. Online look-up services already exist in several countries including Australia and Ireland.
In terms of the practicalities of making this happen, obviously the safety of holding so much data electronically should be of utmost concern.
Automatic Voter Registration
The moves to develop a system of automated registration, whereby registration officers can notify potential voters of their impending addition to the register, will go a huge way to simplifying the registration process. According to the latest Accuracy and Completeness estimates from the Electoral Commission, the local government register in Wales was just 81% complete and 89% accurate as of December 2018. The possibility for the current register to be combined with information from other government sources, such as the DVLA or passport office or council tax information, has the potential for this move to hugely increase the completeness of the register and ensure the groups less likely to be registered (the young, the private rented sector, and some Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups within Wales) can be directly targeted leading to a much more complete register. The Electoral Commission has recently assessed how information from different sources could be used to update the registers.
Opportunities to let people understand they have been automatically registered could include; a letter immediately after they’ve been registered to alert them to the fact that they are now on the register and which elections they are eligible to vote in as a result. Additionally, ahead of any devolved elections a letter could be sent out reminding each individual that they are registered, reminding people of the election date and signposting people to further information ahead of casting their vote.
There is also a need to consider the impact of divergence between devolved and UK elections. For example, if people are automatically registered for the local and Senedd elections in Wales it must be communicated to people that they still need to proactively register or ensure their details are correct relating to UK General and PCC elections.
We strongly support the introduction of digital registers for devolved elections. The 2022 advance voting pilots demonstrated that these can practically work and are vital to deliver a) further adaptations to making voting more flexible and b) a single all Wales database.
It is not practical to continue with hard copy registers given the proposed changes to modernise elections in Wales in this White Paper. That being said, security should continue to be of utmost concern and closely monitored.
The removal of the open register
We strongly agree with the removal of the open register in relation to devolved elections. This would be an essential move to ensure anonymous registration is still possible under an AVR system. The combination of an AVR system and an open electoral register would open up opportunities for fraud and the undermining of privacy due to the increase in the possibility of data linkages to be made between Personally Identifiable Information held on the systems (PII). 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 and move to 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.
We are in favour of imprints for digital campaign materials. The ERS has long advocated the extension of the imprints regime to digital election material, in line with requirements for print campaign material, and we welcome the provisions on this in the Elections Act 2022.
The Electoral Commission has been calling for imprints to apply to digital material since 2003 and has been joined by a plethora of parliamentary committees, academics, civil society organisations and experts in advocating this. The salience of such calls has only increased in recent years with the increasing use of digital advertising in political campaigns by candidates, parties and campaigners. In the 2017 general election, parties spent around £3.16 million on Facebook adverts, more than double the £1.3 million they spent on Facebook in the 2015 general election. Estimates indicate that political party spending on platforms is likely to have increased by over 50 percent in 2019 compared to 2017, with around £6 million spent on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google by the three main UK-wide parties.
Digital imprints, stating who has paid for and promoted content, will enhance transparency about who is behind election material for voters, regulators, researchers, and journalists. Voters will know who is trying to influence their vote, which will enable them to make a more informed decision at the ballot box and to hold those seeking to persuade them to account after the election. The Electoral Commission will be able to rely on digital imprints as part of its regulatory monitoring and enforcement work.
The Scottish Government were the first to introduce an imprint requirement; however it raised concerns about a potential loophole in which the imprint does not need to be part of the election material itself. It is worth noting that the Scottish Government are currently consulting on repealing their imprints scheme (either partly or in full) given the UK Government’s Elections Act provisions on imprints apply to all elections and referendums in Scotland.
Whilst the UK legislation is more robust, there is still a potential loophole that allows for the imprint to not appear on the material itself. The imprint guidance says “The imprint must be included as a part of the material, unless it is not reasonably practical to do so. If it is not reasonably practicable, then the imprint must be included somewhere directly accessible from the material.”
The UK scheme should be monitored to ensure it is working as intended and that imprints are appearing on the material itself and there is no exploitation of this loophole.
Restating the franchise in Wales in one bilingual Welsh Act
We would agree with the restatement of the franchise for devolved elections in one bi-lingual Welsh Act if this would provide clearer wording on who is eligible to vote in devolved elections. We noted that there was some confusion in who was covered by the extension of the franchise in the run up to the 2021 Senedd elections; this was particularly around the definition of qualifying foreign nationals, which remains ambiguous.
We are also concerned at the apparent low rate of registration and subsequent turnout among 16 and 17 year olds in the 2020 and 2021 devolved elections. Research by the Lowering the Voting Age Project concluded that ‘Representative data on how many young people turned out to vote on election day and to what extent young people from different societal groups and parts of Wales engaged with the election is lacking.’ This combined with the lower registration rate seen for 16 and 17 year olds paints a concerning picture on engagement. Data on registration and turnout for qualifying foreign nationals is completely absent, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is also likely to be low. We make recommendations for improving the provision of this data in our response to questions around the proposed Electoral Management Board for Wales.
Restating the franchise should be used as an opportunity to better communicate the extension of the franchise in Wales, and should go alongside an effective communications and political education campaign.
An Electoral Management Board for Wales
We agree that a statutory Electoral Management Board for Wales could provide a number of useful functions, especially around a consistent all-Wales approach to specific information and data linked to elections in Wales.
The suggestion for a statutory (rather than voluntary) board to be established has been previously called for by the Electoral Commission, most recently in 2020. This would put the coordination of elections in Wales on similar footing to Scotland, where the Electoral Management Board of Scotland was established via the Local Electoral Administration (Scotland) Act 2011. Election result data publication in Scotland is currently far more consistent than in Wales, for example after the 2022 local elections all of the local authorities in Scotland published their elections 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.
Currently information about elections in Wales is spread across a number of organisations making it difficult for people to locate all the information that is available. An EMB for Wales could provide a location to collate all of this information into one space.
Crucially, any new Electoral Management Board for Wales would need to maintain its independence from the Welsh Government. It is worth noting that the Scottish Government is currently consulting on expanding the functions of the Electoral Management Board of Scotland, to include establishing the EMB as a body in its own right. They have also asked whether its capacity should be increased. It is worth the Welsh Government considering the responses of that consultation and the policy direction undertaken by the Scottish Government on this.
Future pilots on advanced or flexible voting
We would like to see the continuation and widening of the work started in the 2022 advance voting pilots, with more days to vote and more places to vote. We’d be particularly interested in extending voting options in schools, given the extension of the franchise and the success of the early voting option at a Bridgend school during the pilots earlier this year, where advance turnout was significantly higher at 18% compared with the county as a whole 1.5%, although the sample size was small.
We would like to see further places for polling stations to be situated moving away from council offices and into places like supermarkets or GP surgeries where people naturally find themselves. In rural areas a bus could be considered as a polling station in transit visiting different communities throughout the week ahead of an election. We would suggest that this could be called ‘Voting Van / Bws Pleidleisio’.
We have long supported the idea of pilots on voting on different days and in different places. May 2022’s pilots proved that this can work, in terms of the technology required to make it happen, and that people will turn out to vote in these locations on different days.
The relatively low turnout at these advanced voting stations in the pilots demonstrates that this is not a panacea in terms of reviving democratic engagement, but we still believe that they can be an important element of making democratic participation more flexible.
The pilots demonstrated a higher turnout in areas where traditional polling stations were open in advance of polling day than when just a single location or council office was open in advance. In Bridgend 1.5% of eligible voters voted in advance, compared with 0.2% to 0.3% in the other three trial areas. A secondary school in Bridgend also showed promising results, with 18% of eligible students voting. While a small sample size, this suggests that more pilots in schools are worthwhile.
All of this indicates that while the previous pilots were small in scale, if advanced voting or a wider range of locations were to continue, this should be on a larger basis with traditional polling stations open, more trials in schools and a wider geographic spread of pilot areas. Other voting locations could also be created for the first time, testing out adding polling stations where people naturally are. This could include supermarkets or GP surgeries.
The challenge with changing the way that people can vote will always be how best to communicate it to the public. At 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. If the Welsh Government is considering rolling these measures out further, they should begin a communication campaign much earlier in the electoral cycle. The voter information platform should also contain information on this, potentially plugging into an extension of the Democracy Club’s where do I vote platform.
An online voter information platform
The democratic deficit in Wales persists, despite efforts to improve voter information and engagement in previous elections. This has been demonstrated by low turnout, with a devolved election never reaching 50% turnout, and particularly low turnout levels for the under 35s.
The Electoral Commission’s report on the 2022 local elections in Wales asked a number of questions on whether people were able to access enough information about the elections. In all of the questions around information 16-24 year olds consistently reported that they found it harder to access information on a wide range of aspects related to the elections. Overall, 28% of people said they didn’t know enough about what the election was about. 34% of people said they didn’t know enough about the candidates in the election to make an informed decision.
Currently the onus is on the voter to do the legwork to find out information ahead of an election and this information is currently held in many different places. ERS Cymru and the Democracy Group Cymru have called for a ‘one stop shop’ for voters to easily access information about forthcoming elections. An online voter information platform could provide this ‘one stop shop’, on an accessible and easily searchable site, for example on a ‘vote.wales’ specific website.
In terms of what information this site should contain or signpost to, there are a number of particular areas that we know voters would like more information on.
The basic areas would be:
- Registration- how to register to vote
- 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
There could also be a case for linking to the manifestos of parties standing in the particular election.
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 really good resources on different elections. The Democracy Box has also outlined the story of democracy that every citizen should know. The idea of the voter information platform could be to 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.
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 they 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, could be really useful if rolled out on a national level. Offering a chance for candidates to add a statement as part of the nomination packs could boost the number of candidates taking up this chance and, if the information was held on a voter information platform, could provide them with much more information about their candidates.
In terms of who should host the platform, one option could be that this would be a role for the new Electoral Management Board for Wales. This would be an independent place to hold such information, and removed from government, while still ensuring integrity and accuracy of information.
Improving citizenship education in Wales
In 2018 ERS Cymru undertook a project called Our Voices Heard, which went into 11 schools across Wales and asked the first cohort of 16 and 17 year olds who would be eligible to vote in 2021 how to improve citizenship education. The 200 young people we spoke to told us that there was a lack of democratic education in schools and recommended a range of measures including;
- Statutory citizenship education in schools in Wales
- An independent toolbox for teachers to support citizenship education
- Space for discussing and debating current events within form time, citizenship education lessons and PSE lessons
- A national mock election for young people (which has since been taken up by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ office with Project Vote)
- An online resource at election time for people to find out about candidates standing in their area and to send them questions
- ‘Life Lessons’ in PSE lessons to include financial education
- Better support for schools to be able to host a range of politicians (since taken up by The Politics Project’s Digital Dialogue programme supported by Welsh Government).
Since Our Voices Heard was published, the new Curriculum for Wales has been introduced and many changes to citizenship education are being rolled out, with a much more holistic approach to integrating political discussions into everyday aspects of the education system in Wales. We hope that this will resolve many of the issues identified within the Our Voices Heard project, and that the curriculum is sufficient to give every young person in Wales a good understanding of our democracy.
However, we remain concerned that teachers in Wales require better support to deliver citizenship education under the new curriculum for Wales. The Missing Link report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy found that only one percent of secondary school teachers in England feel fully prepared to teach politics, despite 60% feeling responsible for developing their students’ political literacy skills. While this report focuses on England, anecdotally teachers in Wales have shared similar concerns. Teacher training and support on citizenship education should be prioritised.
The Welsh Government should also ensure that there is no postcode lottery for schools in terms of what resources are available to them. As we outlined in our responses to questions 45 and 46, a huge number of resources are already available for schools to use, but there is no guarantee that they are aware of this. It would be useful for schools to have clarity on the great resources out there, as well as the opportunity to engage in projects like Project Vote or the Digital Dialogue programme.
The role of political parties in developing more accessible campaign materials
Ahead of the Senedd elections in 2021 ERS Cymru, on behalf of the Democracy Group Cymru (then the Election Engagement Working Group), wrote to party leaders in Wales to ask them to provide accessible and youth friendly versions of their manifestos. We received very little response, with only one party actually doing this and one other responding to say they would have discussions with their team. Following the local elections in 2022 the Democracy Group Cymru and The Politics Project jointly held a workshop to reflect on what could be improved around devolved elections. The number one recommendation was that “Information should be provided to voters in more accessible formats; such as large print, audio, braille, additional languages or electronically. This includes campaigning materials through the post and online. This should be second nature to political parties and political institutions, rather than an additional thing rarely considered.” We sent these recommendations to the relevant minister and leaders of political parties in Wales.
Political parties have a huge role to play in reaching out to potential voters and providing good, accessible, timely and clear information. At the moment we believe they could be doing much more; including:
- Easy read and youth friendly versions of manifestos should be available at each election at the same time the full manifesto is published.
- Additional languages should also be considered, and all party manifestos should have accessible formats.
To facilitate the above, guidance could be developed on creating accessible and easy read materials for elections. We believe that the guidance should be independent.
Making it easier for disabled people to vote
We agree that support should be provided to ensure disabled people are able to vote, but note that concerns have been previously raised by a variety of disabilities charities over the use of the ‘as is reasonable’ wording in relation to its use in the Elections Act 2022. Those concerns, that the statement could unintentionally weaken requirements, are applicable here too. PACAC noted these concerns and reaffirmed its support for standards which “seek to ensure that people are able to vote independently where possible”. The Welsh Government should work closely with disabilities charities to alleviate these concerns in this context and provide sufficient equipment in all polling stations ensuring it is easy for disabled people to vote.
Abuse towards candidates
We support the recommendations that are laid out in the White Paper to reduce instances of abuse towards candidates. However, there are a number of ways in which these recommendations could be expanded upon in order to strengthen candidate safety.
Evidence – Development of a candidate abuse evidence base:
The collection of evidence on the type and frequency of abuse encountered could help counteract the current lack of detailed evidence in this area. However, any process of data collection of this sort will need to not put additional pressures on the candidate. A post-election survey of all candidates, along with annual surveys of sitting councillors, could provide a route to the continued collection of data. An anytime reporting process would also mean that candidates could additionally report incidences of abuse in their own time. Providing a mechanism for third parties to also report incidences of abuse could lower the pressure on candidates and councillors, allowing other independent organisations and/or people who have come across abuse online aimed at a particular person to make reports.
Communication – A media literacy strategy:
In their Joint Online Safety Bill Briefing, the Centenary Action Group (CAG) acknowledged the usefulness of a media literacy strategy, which could help reduce abuse by embedding the pillars of digital citizenship, removing the onus of tackling abuse from the individual victim and make the online space a safer space for all. These pillars, developed by Glitch, include:
- Digital Self-Defence: Using online tools to protect ourselves and others in online spaces
- Digital Self-Care: Creating boundaries in digital spaces to look after our wellbeing
- Online Active Bystander: What to do when you see someone else experiencing online abuse
- Tech Accountability: Understanding how to hold tech companies accountable
Any communication campaign should include the above pillars.
Costs – Exempting any spend on safety-related necessities from the election spending limit:
ERS Cymru welcomes this measure to ensure no candidate is impacted adversely by their potential spend on safety measures. However, the potential significant spend on safety may be a barrier to standing for some candidates. In these cases financial support could be provided via the Access to Elected Office fund under an expanded remit. Given the evidence from Her Right Her Net that women are 27 times more likely to experience online abuse than men and the Wales Centre for Public Policy’s report Reform of Electoral Law and Practise stating that evidence shows abuse can be gendered and racialised, we think that an assessment of how the Access to Elected Office fund may be able to assist in funding safety measures would be useful.
Support and advice:
We support the recommendation in the CAG joint briefing highlighting that any support should be accessible both online and in-person, and in a timely manner.
We would be interested to see an evaluation of the WLGA’s Fair and Respectful Campaign pledge in terms of whether candidates thought it was effective in reducing the incidences of abuse before advocating for future roll outs of similar pledges.
Statement of persons nominated:
We would support an amendment to the SOPN form that removes the publication of home addresses completely and instead uses a standard description of the geographical qualifications for a standing candidate. A statement that confirms that a given candidate lives specifically within the ward they are standing in could help ensure that voters remain confident that a candidate is part of the local community.
ERS Cymru’s 2018 report ‘New Voices’ interviewed a number of elected members at Westminster, the Senedd and in some of Wales’ local authorities. We also surveyed elected representatives across Wales, and nearly half (45.5%) reported some form of abuse, discrimination or harassment during the course of their work.
In that report we made a number of recommendations to tackle abuse, including endorsing the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that social media companies should develop automated techniques for identifying intimidatory behaviour and taking it down. We also suggested that social media companies should also offer tools for users to escalate reports of illegal online activity to the police.
We also recommended that the Welsh political parties should develop a joint code of conduct on intimidatory behaviour. Better training and guidance to candidates on social media abuse should also be offered, as was also recommended by the CSPL in 2017.
Since then we have worked with the Centenary Action Group, who developed a briefing on the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill. Given the scope they focussed on social media abuse and quoted Her Net Her Right’s finding that women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men.
There is clearly a need to ensure that online regulation helps address abuse in the political sphere.
Formalising and extending the Access to Elected Office Fund
We agree that primary legislation is needed to ensure the continuation of the fund and to protect it from any future political whims or U-turns.
While we require stronger data on the exact figures, we know that the diversity of elected representatives in Wales at present does not reflect the diversity of the Welsh population. If we are going to improve the diversity of candidates at devolved elections, we need to consider how to overcome the barriers many people from under-represented groups face when considering whether to stand for election.
We welcome the establishment of the existing Access to Elected Office Fund, which has supported disabled candidates at the Senedd and in local elections.
We believe the fund should continue and be protected within primary legislation. We also believe that there is a case for extending the Access to Elected Office Fund to assist with the costs that people from other under-represented groups face. For example, covering childcare costs during a campaign could be useful for those with childcare responsibilities. An assessment of which costs provide barriers for candidates should be undertaken.
While this White Paper does not include any consultation on the reform of the Senedd, it is important to see both areas of a reform in a wider sphere of developing Welsh democracy. We are delighted to have seen proposals from the Special Purpose Committee secure strong support within the Senedd, particularly on increasing the size of the Senedd and improving its diversity. However, we remain very concerned about the proposed closed list electoral system, which limits voter choice and appears to go against the principles of electoral reform outlined in the White Paper, as well as the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform’s principles on electoral systems.
 Democracy Group Cymru, 2022. Recommendations to improve political engagement and participation at future elections. Available here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ynVVkggzWE4vNbTd4JOzc7ExSu2XuLhS3qpClEdazp8/edit?usp=sharing
 Her Net Her Rights – Mapping the state of online violence against women and girls in Europe
 Her Net Her Rights – Mapping the state of online violence against women and girls in Europe