John McCormick: Impartial advice is key to transparent result

Alex Salmond launched referendum consultation in January.Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond launched referendum consultation in January.Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE Electoral Commission, argues John McCormick, is well-placed to lend support on Salmond’s historic plebiscite

The people of Scotland face a historic decision in the independence referendum and must have confidence that it reflects the will of the people. To command that confidence the referendum must be transparent, open to scrutiny and deliver a result accepted by all.

Today we have published our response to the Scottish and UK government consultations and set out what we think needs to happen to deliver a referendum run in the interests of voters. Some issues, such as whether there is one question or two, can only be resolved by politicians. But in other areas it is important that someone independent of both governments takes the lead, especially in making sure the question is clear and neutral and in providing information to voters about how to participate.

The Electoral Commission has overseen three referendums, including the referendum in Wales in March 2011 on more powers for the Assembly and the UK-wide referendum on the UK parliamentary voting system in May 2011. We have learnt a lot from this experience and used it to make recommendations for the Scottish referendum.

At any referendum, it is essential that voters can easily understand and answer the referendum question. There should be absolutely no doubt that voters know exactly what is being asked of them.

There has been some argument in recent months that the Commission should be responsible for developing the question (or questions) put to voters or should have the power to veto the question proposed by government. We do not agree.

With this, as with any other referendum, it is the people we elect to represent us who must have the final say on what to ask voters.

But before parliamentarians vote on the question in the referendum legislation, they should have access to clear and independent advice so that they can be confident voters truly understand the question on the ballot paper.

This advice should be evidence-based and draw on thorough and transparent research with voters. Those tasked with providing this advice should be separate from the process of developing the question in the first place to ensure that the advice is impartial and voter-focused.

The Electoral Commission has knowledge, expertise and recent experience of assessing the intelligibility of referendum questions and giving advice on the proposed question to the UK parliament and the Welsh Assembly. We would welcome the opportunity to undertake this role for the proposed referendum in Scotland. In any case, the relevant legislation must set out clearly and unambiguously who is ultimately responsible for providing this independent advice.

So if it falls to us to provide impartial advice on the question our approach would include carrying out qualitative research with voters. We would also take advice from accessibility and plain language specialists. And we would provide an opportunity for prospective campaigners, politicians and others interested in the referendum to offer their views in the context of our guidelines about referendum questions.

In our experience to do this properly – including enough time to speak to a representative sample of voters and analyse their responses – takes 12 weeks. But if the testing process points to a substantial revision of the proposed question then further time may be necessary to test the new question.

So it will be crucial that when developing the overall timetable – account should be taken of this testing so that the advice can inform the parliamentary process.

No matter how clear the question is, many people will never come face to face with it on the ballot paper unless they are provided with clear and neutral information on how to register to vote and participate in the poll.

To ensure confidence in the impartiality of the referendum process we believe this information should be provided independently of both governments and, again, this is a role we would be happy to undertake.

For the referendum to be administered efficiently and produce a Scotland-wide result that is accepted, there also needs to be clear responsibility and accountability for its delivery. It is right that there should be an independent Chief Counting Officer (CCO) who would be the individual accountable for the conduct of the referendum. At both the Wales and the UK-wide referendums last year the Chair of the Commission was the CCO with overall responsibility for the conduct of the referendum and ensuring the accuracy of the result.

But since this is a Scottish referendum it should build on the structures which are already in place and accepted in Scotland.

Since 2009 we have had an Electoral Management Board (EMB) for Scotland which is now well-established and has brought greater co-ordination of electoral administration. We believe that the convener of the EMB, currently Mary Pitcaithly, is best placed to co-ordinate the administration of the referendum by Counting Officers in Scotland and should be appointed as the CCO.

Of course, we will provide support and share our experience of running the referendums last year but it will be vital that the operational capacity and independence of the CCO is adequately protected and that there are clear lines of accountability for the poll. And it is for this reason that we believe she should be appointed by, and accountable to, the parliaments and not the governments.

We all have a lot of work ahead to ensure we have good legislation: a question that can be understood by all; good quality voter information; and the structures in place for a well-run poll.

We’ll play our full part in that work but our most important role will be to continue to make sure the interests of voters are put first so that they get the referendum result they want.

John McCormick is Electoral Commissioner for Scotland. Mr McCormick will be one of the speakers at The Scotsman conference today: A Question of Independence: How will the referendum work?