Naomi Long speech on reform of the Voting system

Speech by Alliance East Belfast MP Naomi Long in House of Commons on debate on the reform of the voting system.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): “The Alliance party would generally support reform of the voting system, with the reservation that the Bill is about changing to AV proportionality, rather than full single transferable vote proportionality, which would be our preference. However, we have significant reservations about the date proposed for the referendum.

“In Northern Ireland, 5 May 2011 is already set in legislation as the date of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and it is also the date for the local government elections, so two elections are already taking place on that day. The review of public administration in Northern Ireland has led to the date of the local government elections being changed once already, and the Secretary of State recently indicated to us that any question mark hanging over 5 May as the date of local government elections has pretty much been removed, so it is now almost a certainty that both elections will be held on 5 May.

“I can understand the argument that some may put that having the referendum at the same time as other elections will increase voter participation, but I disagree; while turnout may be increased in parts of the country where there are other elections on the same day, participation is not the same as turnout. The question is the degree to which members of the public and voters are able to engage on the subject matter of the election, and not simply whether they are able to turn out and vote. Participation will be interfered with if three elections are run at the same time.

“Having adequate time and space for a public debate about constitutional change is hugely important. Debate on the substance of the proposed changes will be interfered with if, on the same day, we run the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which are hugely important to the people in Northern Ireland, and local government elections, which have an enormous impact on people’s daily lives.

“There has been some debate about which election would overshadow which. I believe that in Northern Ireland there will be little appetite for a debate on the referendum. People and, to a greater extent, politicians will be more concerned about the substance of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to local government. However, even if the reverse proved true, it would not be good for democracy. The elections and the referendum should be separated, so that people can give their full attention to the substantive issues that are up for debate.

“In addition to the issue of ensuring that people get the full opportunity to participate in debate, there are serious logistical issues, some of which have already been raised this evening. One that causes considerable concern is that if local government elections, regional Assembly elections and a referendum coincide, there will be not simply three different elections but potentially three different groups of valid electors turning up at polling stations to cast their votes-groups with different identification requirements.

“That may cause confusion among voters and those who have to administer the system on the day. It is likely to lead to congestion at polling stations, and to fairly serious disputes. There is precedent for that; we have had Westminster and local council elections on the same day, and found that some people were eligible to vote in one election and not the other, or that the information that they received about what is valid identification for one election did not hold true for the other. Our party has made significant representations to the Electoral Commission on that matter. If we confuse that situation by adding the complexities of a referendum, we are putting too much pressure on those who administer the system.

“There is also an issue to do with the suitability and flexibility of the polling stations. Much has been made of the economic benefit of having all the elections on the same day, but there are also potential costs. Some of the polling stations that we use would simply not be suitable for use in three very different elections. We would be required to have a much more complex arrangement to ensure that only those eligible to vote in each separate election could do so, and do so smoothly and without confusion.

“The media issue has already been well addressed. In the national media, the focus will undoubtedly be on the referendum, but in the local media the referendum will be entirely eclipsed by the local elections. That issue needs to be considered.

“I also want to raise the issue of campaign material, and I speak as someone who has experience of elections being held on the same day. I have listened very carefully to the representations made by Royal Mail about the complexities of delivering all the campaign material. If we have not just two local elections but a referendum on the same day, the need to deliver all the relevant election material to all the relevant people will place the people at Royal Mail under particular stress. The election material will be less likely to assist voters with their choice than to simply bury them under a deluge of information. I suspect that voters will not engage as fully with any of the elections, given the amount of material that they will receive daily for all three elections.

“I would go further: the problem is not just events on the day; accounting for expenditure on each of the three elections, and managing to keep that expenditure separate enough to satisfy electoral rules, will prove challenging during the campaign.

“I want to reiterate a point that has been raised about the opportunity for cross-party co-operation. Those who support electoral reform may want to form a yes campaign, and those who are opposed may want to form a no campaign. Their ability to do so is significantly inhibited if the local government and Assembly elections are on the same day as the referendum, because people will be in full party election mode in the run-up to the date. The effectiveness of any yes or no campaign in areas where there are other elections taking place at the same time will be significantly diminished.

“I support the moves being made to reform the electoral system, but the date should be reconsidered. I do not believe that 5 May is an appropriate date. I do not believe that there was significant consultation with regional Administrations about how having the referendum on that day would impact on their area. The issue should be thought through again to ensure that the fullest, frankest and most open debate can take place, and to ensure that when the electorate come to the ballot box, they are fully informed of why they are there.”

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