Timing could boost turn-out in referendum

The likely delay of the devolution referendum into next year is advancing the case for it being held on the same day as the Assembly election

The 2007 One Wales agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru in the National Assembly commits to pursuing “a successful outcome of a referendum for full law-making powers … as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term”. The way things are turning out, with the prospects of a referendum this Autumn looking increasingly unlikely, that small word “at” is becoming increasingly significant.

The tightness of the timing of a referendum this Autumn is due to the following realities. Legislation requires that there has to be a full ten weeks allowed for the referendum campaign ahead of the vote. That means that even if the referendum were held as late as Thursday 11 November, ten weeks would bring you back to the end of August. This means that the legislation allowing the referendum to be held would have to pass through both Houses of Parliament, the Privy Council, and the National Assembly itself before the summer recess on 29 July.

Kay Jenkins, Head of the Electoral Commission’s Wales Office told me that they have yet to see the draft legislation, let alone received a projected question from the Secretary of State for Wales. Of course, a question has been suggested by First Minister Carwyn Jones, but the Electoral Commission has to road test whatever formula is put forward by the Wales Office, and ideally they would like ten weeks to do that. With only seven weeks left before the Westminster Parliament’s recess you can see the problem.

Given these realities attention in Cardiff Bay is turning to March next year as the referendum moment.  However, March is less than two months away from the next National Assembly election, due on 5 May. Why have all the trouble and cost of two separate campaigns so close together when you could simply combine them?

There have been two main answers to that question. The first has been that the Electoral Commission wouldn’t allow it. However, the Commission has changed its mind. Kay Jenkins said that until around 2003-04 the Commission was against combining votes because the regulations on party funding and postal ballots were relatively new. “These have now bedded down so the Commission has shifted its principled opposition to vote combination,” she said.

However, she warned against too much innovation, pointing to the experience of the Scottish Parliament election in 2007 when local elections were held on the same day with a new STV electoral system. “This resulted  in significant issues with spoilt ballot papers,” she said.

So, for example, if there was a prospect of a referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system for Westminster being held on the same day as the Assembly election next May, she thought adding a referendum on Assembly powers as well would be a step too far.

The other main objection to combining a referendum vote with the Assembly election has come from the parties themselves. The Liberal Democrats, in particular, have been vociferous in pointing to the difficulties the parties would have on collaborating in a Yes Campaign while at the same time knocking lumps out of each other on the Assembly election. Yet, in this instance, the fact that all the parties in the Assembly are on the Yes side in the referendum more powers is a mitigating factor.

On the other side, there are at least two strong arguments in favour of combining the votes. One is cost. Holding an election in Wales costs £5.1 million in printing ballot papers, organising polling stations, counting the votes and so on. It is estimated that about a third of the cost could be saved by holding the referendum and the Assembly election on the same day. The referendum would entail an additional £2.7 million costs by the Electoral Commission funding the two sides to enable them to mount awareness campaigns.

Apart from cost (and convenience for the voters) the major argument for combining the two votes is that it would undoubtedly boost turn-out. There is a danger that a stand-alone referendum might only achieve a low turn-out of around 30 per cent, which would threaten the legitimacy of the result. Holding the referendum at the same time as the Assembly election would at least ensure a more credible turn-out of around 50 per cent. Indeed, two campaigns running simultaneously might well boost turn-out, adding to the democratic value of both plebiscites.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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