UK parliamentary elections: fundamental rules and features
Blog | Arkady Lubarev
Member of the Council of the Movement for Defence of Voters' Rights "Golos", member of the expert consulting group under the Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation
In December 2019 I participated in the observation of early parliamentary elections in the UK. In this article, I will try to make an overview of their fundamental rules and features.
The British elections are interesting primarily because Great Britain is the only Western European country where the majority system of relative majority, or first-past-the-post system, is preserved in the elections of the national parliament. But I intend to devote a separate article to the peculiarities of the British electoral system. Let's start with the other things.
The electoral administration in Britain is decentralized. At the national level, the Electoral Commission is responsible for elections. Mainly it provides support for procedural guidelines, registers and monitors the funding of political parties. Each constituency has electoral commissioners, mostly municipal officials. They make many decisions independently including relating to counting procedures. Also these commissioners order ballot boxes, so the ballot boxes may vary from district to district.
In Britain there is mandatory voter registration, but not enforced. The elector must apply independently at the place of residence. There is no central register of voters, and elector registers are maintained by local government officials. As a result, not all citizens with active voting rights are included in the elector register. And that presents a certain problem. Electoral commissioners regularly identify unregistered electors and try to encourage them to register.
Elections to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, or general elections, are held in 650 single-member constituencies: 533 in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland.
A special independent commission is responsible for establishing the boundaries of the constituencies. We have not heard any complaints about gerrymandering, although there has been talks that the cultural community of electors is not always sufficiently taken into account when cutting districts.
In 2011, there was passed a law reducing the number of districts to 600 and requiring to review constituency boundaries every five years and establish priority of equal numbers with a maximum deviation of 5% from the electoral quota. However, this reform was delayed by a legal disputing of the new gerrymandering. As a result, elections in 2019 were held in the same constituencies as in 2010, 2015 and 2017.
The average constituency size is 73,000 electors (75,000 in England, 58,000 in Wales, 69,000 in Scotland, and 72,000 in Northern Ireland ). In other words, the constituencies are much smaller compared not only to elections to the State Duma, but also to the Moscow City Duma.
Nomination and registration of candidates
The rules for registering candidates are quite simple. The candidate must submit nomination papers signed by at least ten registered electors from that constituency, and pay £500, which is refunded if the candidate wins at least 5% of the vote.
500 pounds is about 40 thousand rubles at the official rate. If maintain the proportion by the number of voters, the single-member constituency for elections to the State Duma will have a deposit about 150 thousand rubles. I remind you that in 2003 the deposit for single-member elections to the State Duma was 900 thousand rubles.
A candidate may be independent or declare to belong to a party. If more than one candidate has been nominated from one party in a constituency, the party must choose one of them.
Despite of the liberal rules, the number of candidates in elections is not excessive. The average number of candidates for the constituency is 5.1. All constituencies had at least three candidates, and maximum of 12 was in England; Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had 8.
The number of parties participating in the elections is impressive - 69. Although, many of them would be called in Russia as fake. 25 parties nominated just one candidate, 11 parties nominated just two. The results of candidates from most parties are very low. More about British parties you can read in my next article about the electoral system.
There are few independent candidates, but also quite a number - in these elections there were 224, that is, less than half of the constituencies. Most constituencies had no independent candidates, but there were also constituencies where three independent candidates ran at once. Their results are mostly very low. However, independent candidates came second in four constituencies (an independent candidate in one constituency of Northern Ireland won in the 2015 and 2017 elections).
In Britain the election campaign is usually fleeting. This is especially true for early elections. The current general election was scheduled on October 29 for December 12, which means the entire campaign lasted 44 days. Officially, the campaigning period begins 25 working days before the election.
On London streets we saw no leaflets at all, no campaigning in the final days before voting day. Whether there was door-to-door campaigning, we don 't know, but we think the small size of the constituencies allows it.
Campaigning in newspapers is not regulated by law: a variety of newspapers are considered to sufficiently ensure pluralism. Yet, as we've been told, most major newspapers traditionally are on Conservative's side. Internet campaigning is also free of regulation, and some experts are concerned about it.
But TV campaigning is highly regulated. Paid broadcasting time is not available to anyone. For free, the main parties broadcast their videos and also participate in the debate.
The topical theme of these elections was the question of Brexit. However, the Labour Party sidestepped the issue in its videos, preferring to point out at social problems. Such tactics were due to the fact that among traditional Labour electors there are many supporters and opponents of Brexit. But Labour did not succeed in their tactics, and they lost quite a lot of votes and mandates.
The candidate's expenses limited to £8,700 plus £6-9 for each elector in the constituency. The party can spend £30,000 multiplied by the number of disputed constituencies, or fixed sum up to £810,000 in England, £120,000 in Scotland, and £60,000 in Wales.
We’ve heard the opinion of experts concerned that the party can spend a large part of its funds on individual constituencies where competition is most acute, and thus there will be an excess of finance in these constituencies. This is especially true of campaigning through social media, which is hard to control.
We saw two problems regarding to the ballot paper. The first is that ballot papers are numbered (on the back). And the ballot number is written on the electoral register next to the elector number. In fact, this means the possibility of violating the secrecy of the vote.
But practically this does not happen, and we have not heard any complaints about violation of the secrecy of voting. This is also because of that votes are counted by other people in the other places, and they do not have access to electoral registers with written ballot numbers in them. But still potentially there is such an opportunity.
The second problem is a minimum of information in the ballot paper. The elector is informed of the following information about the candidate: first name and surname, party membership and place of residence (either the exact address or the name of the electoral constituency where he lives). Published place of residence it is wonderful, and better than what we can see in Russia when it is mentioned just Moscow as a place of residence and electors do not know whether the candidate lives in their district, or in one of the elite central districts. In general, information is insufficient. Even gender is not specified, which cannot always be recognized from the surname and first name. There is also no information about the age, profession or place of employment of the candidate. Additionally this suggests that the main role in the elector's choice plays not the personality of the candidate, but his party affiliation.
The polling procedure
The main feature of voting in the UK is that the elector is not required to present any document. Everyone works with absolute trust. Most electors present an invitation, or poll card, sent by mail, which includes the elector's registration number. If an elector does not have such an invitation, he can simply name his first name and surname and address, and if he is found on the electoral register, he will receive a ballot paper.
As far as I understood from the article of Tatiana Jurasova, some problems have already been discovered because of this in the municipal elections: dozens of cases of voting for others were found in one of the London municipalities, where is a large proportion of people from Bangladesh. But the rules have not yet been changed.
However, Northern Ireland is an exception. Here it is required to present a photo ID (passport or driver's license) to obtain a ballot paper.
Curiously, it is not allowed to make photos at the polling station. Mobile phones cannot be used for this reason either.
The election commission mostly consists of three people, with one supervisor and two poll clerks busy issuing ballots. We asked the question: can we have more than three? We were answered: it is expensive.
More often than not at the polling place there is the only opaque ballot box stood on the table behind which members of the commission sit (so was in most countries where I observed the election). But also there were polling stations where the ballot boxes stood distantly, and it was more difficult for the commission members to control how many ballots fell into it. By the way, a couple of times we saw elector put into ballot box more than one ballot paper. We were told he was voting by proxy.
There is no early voting, absentee voting certificates or voting at home in Britain. The polling station usually allows entering by wheelchair. We also saw a disabled person came by a special car. There is also voting by proxy and by mail. I have not yet seen a full report of 2019 general election, but in 2017 about 7 million electors voted by mail, which is about 22% of the number of valid electors.
There is an interesting feature not of the voting process but of the election participants' behavior on this day. There are so called tellers, representatives of parties who are on duty near the entrance to the polling station (they are not allowed to enter). They try to keep records of voting electors. Of course, electors give them information voluntarily, but apparently they manage to gather enough information.
We observed in one of the north London constituency and almost everywhere we saw only tellers from the Conservative Party. But around one polling place, we saw representatives of the Conservatives and Labour spoke peacefully. At the same time, the Conservative tried to interview electors leaving the polling station and record the information, but Labour visibly campaigned, showing a card with their candidate’s name to electors going to vote.
The count of votes
The count of votes is carried outside the polling station; it is centralized within the constituency. At the same time, procedures may differ in districts. In the constituency where we observed the count (it was Kensington, almost central London), there was not count of votes by every polling stations. We were told that in other districts could count by polling places. But this is not necessary, and no information from polling stations is published.
The count took place in a huge hall there also were the press and party representatives (this seems typical). All counters were teamed into several groups (15 at all, or so). The group was counting ballots took out from the ballot boxes and comparing the number of extracted ballots with the number of issued ballots. Then these ballots were put together. We didn't wait to count the votes.
Next to the counters' tables there were representatives of the parties, who tried to see the marks in the ballots and record them. Thus they tried to do the work that the counters did not do, that is, to get the results of voting by individual polling stations. It's hard to tell how much they managed it.
After observing elections in another country, the question traditionally arises: what can we borrow from them? But long ago I realized that borrowing someone else's experience is necessary with great caution. The effect of any rules heavily depends on local conditions, and in a different environment they can give a different and often opposite effect.
But studying elections in other countries is still useful. It shows how many different solutions are possible for certain situations and problems. And it is necessary to find the solution optimal for the appropriate conditions.
The opinion expresses the author's personal position and may be out of sync with that of the Golos movement.