Ballot Box Briefing #3 – Ballot Access

As lockdown continues to drag interminably on, it’s time for the third Ballot Box Briefing! This time, we’ll take a look at something vitally important to our democratic process but often forgotten about – Ballot Access rules. Whilst solid systems of Proportional Representation (as discussed in Briefing #2) and public funding for political parties (Briefing #1) might have more impact on overall results, the question of who is on the ballot and how they get there in the first place has a major role to play too.

As it stands, ballot access in Scotland and the UK as a whole doesn’t follow a consistent set of principles across different levels, with different barriers facing candidates for different levels. Although some degree of difference is sensible, failure to follow the same general outline would suggest current rules are mostly cobbled together rather than reflective of any deeper logic.

The most famous ballot access rule at the moment is of course the deposit. This is a £500 fee that a party and/or candidate must pay up-front to get on the ballot for a parliamentary election. This applies to each individual constituency and, for elections to the Scottish Parliament, each region. If the party/candidate in question wins at least 5% of the vote, that deposit will be refunded. The deposit and the 5% required to win it back is such an embedded feature of our electoral systems that saying someone has “lost their deposit” is widely understood to mean they did badly.

Famed as it may be, deposits are fundamentally bad. By putting a financial barrier to even standing in the first place, it becomes harder for smaller parties and independents to even put themselves forward. When you consider these are already the candidates likely to suffer most from lack of public funding and from (in the FPTP constituencies at Westminster and Holyrood) unfair and disproportional forms of election, this contributes to keeping smaller and newer parties down and preserving the status of long-established and well-funded parties.

The claim in defence of deposits is that they aim to prevent frivolous candidates from standing – but then if that were the case, why require them of every candidate? Parties that already have parliamentary representation can hardly be said to be frivolous, or at least their frivolity has already been voter approved! There isn’t really much consistent internal logic to deposits. In general, deposits are such a bad idea that the Electoral Commission itself, the body charged with overseeing the registration of political parties and conduct of elections, has recommended their abolition.

An additional aspect of ballot access applies only to UK Parliament elections – “subscribers”. In order to contest a UK Parliament constituency, a candidate has to collect signatures from 10 voters in that constituency confirming they support that candidate standing. Although this currently only applies to one level of election and involves just a small number of voters, there’s a useful kernel here. Indeed, when looking at some of our European neighbours, some form of subscription process is a major feature of their ballot access rules, often instead of deposits. Additionally, the Electoral Commission has recommended the maintenance of subscriptions in some form even if deposits are abolished, agreeing that there should be some barrier to those frivolous candidacies.

In contrast to parliamentary elections, council elections in Scotland are largely open-access. At their simplest they boil down to if you live and/or are registered to vote in a given council area, you can stand for election there. There are no deposits or subscriptions required. That’s nice and easy, at least, but perhaps that level of openness might be going too far in the other direction.

The reform outlined in the briefing is to abolish deposits and move to a more consistent system of entitlements and subscriptions. Both of these mechanisms involve measuring voter approval for parties (or independent candidates), and thus put the decision about who ends up on the final ballot in the hands of the electorate itself. There’s a strong argument to be made that process is therefore substantially more democratic than any other alternative.

Entitlements would give parties (or independents) automatic ballot access if they won any seats at either the most recent Scottish or UK Parliament elections. There’d be no need to specifically require such parties to collect additional subscriptions, as they’ve already proven a substantial degree of public support by winning seats.

For parties that don’t qualify for that automatic entitlement, they would instead use the subscription system. This would require them to collect the signatures of 0.1% of voters in the relevant electoral area – whether that’s nationwide or in specific constituencies and regions would be up to that party. Independents would have a lower threshold of 0.05% of voters for parliamentary elections, in recognition of their lack of party support, and would be able to contest council elections without any subscribers. Purely local parties, such as the Orkney Manifesto Group, would also be subject to the reduced 0.05% threshold in council elections.

Once a party has gathered the necessary number of subscribers once, they won’t need to do so again so long as they continue to win a number of votes equal to the then-current 0.1% figure at elections. As with the automatic entitlement for parties that won seats, this would recognise existing support. It wouldn’t make much sense to ask a party winning 1% of the vote to then prove it has the support of 0.1% of the electorate to stand again, for example!

The relevant electoral authorities would need to make the subscription process as accessible to voters as possible, allowing subscriptions to be lodged by postal form or online, and ensuring that public services such as libraries are available to assist with the process. Maintenance of the entitlement and subscription status of parties would likely fall to the Electoral Commission, which already maintains the register of political parties.

Moving to this model would relieve the financial pressure on candidacies outside of the major parties, giving voters more choice at elections, whilst still preventing too many frivolous candidates from standing. Although this might not lead to massive change in and of itself, it should be seen as a necessary part of a package of reforms that would bring our democratic systems fully into the 21st century.

You can read the full Ballot Access briefing here.