Electoral observing in Britain.

The British Electoral Commission has published their New Code of Practice for Electoral Observers and a link to the consultation response paper. Here are key actions from their email. And I paste the specific links after that.

“We are now taking forward a number of actions to update the scheme. These include:

· launching a new online application process for individuals and organisations seeking accreditation as electoral observers from January 2019

· redesigning the electoral observer ID badge which will be issued to all observers from January 2019

· developing a programme of work to improve the guidance we make available to electoral observers, and those running elections

· introducing a voluntary feedback mechanism for electoral observers from the next scheduled elections in May 2019

· updating our approach to how we handle applications for accreditation of electoral observers”

The response is here: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/our-work/publications/consultations-and-responses/response-to-feedback-on-the-electoral-observer-scheme-and-code-of-practice-consultation

And the revised Code of Practice here:

Pre-election processes comment. Overall I personally agree with the changes, mostly improvements in the working of the scheme, but criticise a couple of areas where no change is proposed. The Commission has engaged with feedback received. For example on the issue of whether observers should notify administrators in advance of where they intend to observe. Also in relation to observers giving feedback (both encouraged, but not a requirement). On the other hand they state, pretty pathetically, that observers cannot observe pre-Eday processes such as “access to electoral registers and staff training” because we “cannot provide for this without changes to the legal framework.” Instead of proposing to Parliament to improve the law. (The same answer you get about not being able to inspect candidate election expenses online which is pathetic in the 2010s).

In response to a question from my Irish colleague, Michael G, I made this point – I cannot think of any legal reason why the organisers cannot invite anyone for good reason to observe training. It would seem wholly reasonable to invite accredited observers to do so if they wish. I can also think of no practical reason. I hope someone will correct me if I am wrong – there are a miniscule number of people registered as accredited observers in the UK. I personally know three only.  So I don’t think numbers wanting to observe would be a problem. [I’ve now checked the numbers and give more details at the end – there are actually 250 observers, though not all British.]

The requirement of being politically impartial comment. The Electoral Commission are reiterating their very wide interpretation of a being politically impartial requirement. This was a key area that I objected to. They have considered, engaged with (slightly) and rejected the critique of such a requirement. “Some suggested that political impartiality should only apply during an election period, rather than for the full length of the accreditation. In summary they – public officials – decide (full extract below) “members, officers or employees of a UK registered political party who would be, or are likely to be, politically active during their accreditation period must not apply for accreditation.”

. “Being affiliated to a UK registered political party, or a non-party campaign group, does not automatically disqualify a person from being accredited as an electoral observer. However, members, officers or employees of a UK registered political party who would be, or are likely to be, politically active during their accreditation period must not apply for accreditation.

If we find evidence that an applicant has previously campaigned, or has been politically active, we will contact the applicant to make sure they are aware of and can meet the requirement for political impartiality during their period of accreditation. We believe this is essential to maintain integrity and confidence in the independence of the electoral observer scheme.”

These restrictive criteria seem to me to clearly infringe an individual’s right to both freedom of association and freedom of expression. If they exercise their freedom of expression or freedom of association even significantly before an election period they are barred from being able to be an observer. It erroneously gives the impression as well that people who are party politically active are not able to be objective.

A personal note (as an aggrieved self-publicist 🙂 ). In an administrative error, I find that the Commission engaged with the points that I made but did not actually list me in the respondents to the consultation [unless, erroneously, as an international observer abroad they have put me in their category of ‘accredited observer’]. I suspect this is the misinterpretation of law by many government and public bodies (and petition websites) that believe if an individual replies to a consultation (or signs a petition) data protection means their identity should not be revealed, even though the individual is specifically replying to a public consultation / signing a public petition. I never intend my responses to public consultations, or signature on petitions, to be secret.

The number of independent accredited election observers in the UK?

I am surprised to find that there are 250 accredited observers in the current UK list that runs out at the end of December. Although this includes both officials from government departments and some foreign government and organisation observers I guess from the designations.
These numbers include 20 from a Ukrainian NGO (one that I haven’t heard of myself, ‘Leading Legal Initiatives’), UK Cabinet Office and Scottish Government officials, Korean and Singaporean diplomats. The UK NGO Democracy Volunteers is the largest group (50), and there is one enterprising school listed, Stowe School. I know at least 5 of the people on the list.

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