The Scottish Government’s recent consultation on administrative arrangements for #Indyref2 says that ‘decisions on the future of Scotland should be for those who live and work here, including all those who have chosen to make Scotland their home’. I agree. But the draft Bill doesn’t fully reflect that principle.The franchise must be extended.
The consultation paper also proposes minor changes to the rules on postal voting, to reduce the risk of fraud. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need to go back to sort of system where you only got a postal vote on medical grounds or if you were away from home, working for example, on polling day.
The consultation paper proposes that those entitled to vote should be: British citizens resident in Scotland; Commonwealth citizens resident in Scotland; Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries resident in Scotland; Members of the House of Lords resident in Scotland; and Service/Crown personnel serving in the UK or overseas in the Armed Forces or with Her Majesty’s Government who are registered to vote in Scotland. So far, so good.
But if you hail from Norway – a country with more cultural links to Scotland than most – or Switzerland, you can’t vote, simply because those aren’t members of the EU.
Or take the example of someone from Botswana and someone else from Ivory Coast. Let’s assume they both moved to Scotland at the same time, both are doing similar jobs and paying the same amount of tax. Under the proposals in the consultation paper, the person from Botswana would be eligible to vote, but the person from Ivory Coast wouldn’t. That’s because Botswana was once a British colonial possession, and is in the Commonwealth; whereas Ivory Coast is a former French colonial possession, and isn’t in the Commonwealth.
To be consistent with the principle set out in the consultation paper, voting should also be open to anyone able to demonstrate permanent residency in Scotland for a defined period, say, three years, in addition to those already eligible to vote. A ‘permanent residency’ test would exclude people in Scotland on only a temporary basis, but would include those ‘who have chosen to make Scotland their home’.
Then there’s postal voting. Richard Mawrey QC is a UK Deputy High Court Judge. He has repeatedly criticised the UK postal voting system, because he says it makes large-scale fraud possible. He should know, as he has presided over a number of trials involving electoral fraud.
Not everybody agrees with him. But lots of people do. That’s important because another referendum on independence must be both fair, and must also be seen to be fair. Almost one-fifth of the Scottish Electorate now votes by post. In the event of a narrow result, the suspicion that the outcome was the result of postal voting fraud would be extremely divisive.
There are many valid reasons why people should be able to vote by post, and they should still be allowed to do so. It used to be the case that you got a postal vote if you had a medical reason that would make going to the polling station difficult; or if you could show that you would be working away from home, for example if working offshore. That all seems reasonable.
However, the Representation of the People Act (2000) introduced postal voting ‘on demand’, i.e. you got a postal vote if you asked for it. The change was made with the perfectly laudable aim of increasing turnout. However, turnout in all four UK General Elections this century was lower than in every general election between 1945 and 1997.
And postal voting on demand seems much less reasonable. Universal suffrage was achieved in the UK only after centuries of struggle in which some people died: think of the Chartists in the early nineteenth century, or the Suffragettes in the early twentieth. Exercising one’s democratic right to determine the future of your country is not the same as popping out to the supermarket. Polling stations are open from 7.00am till 10.00pm. And they are generally within easy walking distance of where most voters live. If you are perfectly capable of attending the polling station, is it really that unreasonable to ask you to do so to exercise your precious right to vote?
We need to back to the old system, to reduce the possibility of fraud, and build public confidence in the result.
The Scottish Government’s consultation paper is available here: https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/elections-and-constitutional-development-division/draft-referendum-bill/consult_view