Election chaos unacceptable, say observers

By Eddie Barnes & Murdo Macleod
Published May 6th 2007 in The Scotsman

INTERNATIONAL observers last night labelled the Holyrood election voting chaos "totally unacceptable".

Robert Richie, executive director of US-based Fair Vote, was among more than 30 experts from North America who watched Scottish democracy in action. But he said the difficulties, which saw one in 10 votes rejected, amounted to Scotland's version of the "hanging chads" fiasco in Florida which marred the 2000 US presidential election.

Meanwhile, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that government chiefs pressed ahead with disastrous reforms to Holyrood's voting system despite dozens of warnings from councils, experts and citizen rights groups that the plans would throw the elections into chaos.

Richie said the difficulty arose from the design and instructions on the ballot papers and lack of consistency in judging which ballots were spoiled.

"The most fundamental flaw was the ballot design of the party and constituency votes in two columns on the same page, rather than on separate pages.

"Also, it seems confusion was caused by the change in the rules which allowed parties to use the names of leaders, rather than the party, in the first column. We saw this with the SNP's 'Alex Salmond for First Minister' and 'Tommy Sheridan Solidarity'. Some people may have thought they were voting for candidates."

The delegation of foreign observers was in Scotland at the invitation of the Electoral Reform Society, which has condemned the problems that engulfed the Holyrood polls.

Richie, from Washington, said he did not believe the problems were caused by holding two separate elections - for parliament and councils - on the same day. He also said the introduction of a new system of proportional representation voting in the local authority poll was not to blame.

He added: "There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned. It's totally unacceptable to have so many votes spoiled. There are parallels with the problems in the presidential election in Florida."

Richie also expressed concern about a lack of uniform standards in judging which votes were rejected and which were deemed to be valid. "It seemed that votes on one side of the room that were thought to be OK - on the other side of the room would have been rejected."

Scotland on Sunday has verified that more than 81,000 votes were spoiled following Thursday's vote - equivalent to the turnout of three entire constituencies.

Ministers in the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office pressed on with reforming the ballot to have two Holyrood votes on one page and local government elections on the same day, claiming it would make the election fairer and increase turnout. But they are now facing allegations they did so in the full knowledge that they were risking catastrophe.

Sir John Arbuthnott, who led a commission into voting arrangements two years ago, issued a statement last night restating his opposition to the way both the Scottish Parliament election and Council elections were held on the same day.

Arbuthnott said: "We recommended, supporting previous views, that the Scottish Parliament and local government elections should not be held on the same day, partly to reduce voter confusion. However, this was not accepted by the Scottish Executive."

Mike Russell, elected as an SNP MSP on Thursday, and a member of the commission, said: "This decision alone proves to me is that at the very least they aren't fit to govern. They did this for party advantage, thinking that they could get the vote up in councils."

Experts say that the problems were then compounded when the election ballot paper was drawn up. A draft of the paper was circulated to experts who insisted that it was entirely unacceptable.

Aberdeen City Council warned that the paper "would lead to confusion".

Both Capability Scotland, which represents disabled people, and the Electoral Reform Society said the paper should be increased in size, to avoid confusion. South Ayrshire Council said the paper was "unnecessarily complex" and would "be confusing for voters".

Sources in the Scotland Office insisted last night that the paper had been much clearer when it was finally produced.

But one insider close to the negotiations said: "We put it to them that the paper should be bigger, to make the text easier to read. But they said they could not do it because it would be too expensive and that the papers would have to fit the machines they had already chosen. They had already selected the company and the machines and everything had to fit in around that. It was like talking to a brick wall."

The confusion was compounded in Edinburgh and Glasgow after the Scotland Office - which was in charge of the election - dropped a set of arrows telling people where to vote. The decision was taken because of the large number of parties on the regional list.

Party activists said many papers were spoiled because people did not realise they could mark two votes on their Holyrood sheet. Consequently, thousands of people left their constituency vote blank.

Professor of politics at Strathclyde University John Curtice said: "It seems that the biggest problem was with the design of the ballot paper, which at the top said that you had two votes and then said further down, mark one X in each column. It seems that a lot of people may have been putting two Xs in the same column, which would cause their ballot papers to be rejected."

Stephen Purcell, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, said: "It's surely not a coincidence there were so many spoilt papers at the same time as a new electoral system was introduced. This is unacceptable."

Labour sources said that none of the other political parties objected to the changes, apart from the Scottish Pensioner's party.

A spokesman said: "We went back to people time and time again and held focus groups all over the country to test this."

Ministers within the Scotland Office are known to be angered at the claims they are to blame for the problems because, they say, they were only following recommendations.