Combining an EU referendum with the Assembly elections would be a ‘nightmare’

Glyn Mathias says proposals to hold the EU referendum on the day of the next Assembly elections would cause major complications.

The First Minister is absolutely right in rejecting any possibility of holding the forthcoming EU referendum on the same day as the next Assembly elections in May 2016.

It was UKIP’s Nathan Gill who first put up this idea, and to describe it as a self-serving proposal would be an understatement. UKIP’s motivation in putting it forward is the hope that a NO vote in the referendum could be converted into votes for UKIP in the Assembly elections. On a bigger turnout than would be usual for Assembly elections, the NO voters might read across to the Assembly ballot paper and turn their NO vote into a UKIP vote.

But it is not going to happen. That’s not just because of the level of opposition to the notion across the political parties in the Assembly and from Carwyn Jones in particular. There are some fundamental reasons why the Assembly elections should not get mixed up with the EU referendum.

The first is the obvious one that the in/out referendum campaign would overshadow the Assembly elections. The dominance of the London media will mean that Press and TV coverage would concentrate on the EU referendum, and this would drown out coverage by the Wales-based media of the Assembly elections. Furthermore, the Welsh media would themselves have to split their coverage between two very different campaigns.

The campaigning around next year’s Assembly elections will have to reflect the new powers which are scheduled to be given to the National Assembly in the Westminster government’s new Wales Bill. These are big issues which it is vital that the political parties, whatever their views on the new powers, need to get across to the electorate. Mixing that up with the EU referendum would make it difficult for the electorate to comprehend what the Assembly elections will really be about.

It is encouraging that the Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb, has himself spoken about the risks of issues getting blurred. “We want people in Wales to understand what devolution is all about and what the issues at stake are,” he said. Any decision about the timing of the referendum would not be in the hands of the Welsh Secretary, but his voice in Cabinet would undoubtedly be reinforced by the Secretary of State for Scotland, where elections to the Scottish Parliament are due to be held at the same time.

The other fundamental reason for rejecting the idea is that it would be a monstrous and impossible nightmare for the electoral officials tasked with organising the elections. Already the next elections for Police and Crime Commissioners are due to be held on the same day as the Assembly elections. Already there is a risk of voter confusion over the ballot papers. There will be two different electoral systems in use, incorporating three methods of voting and three ballot papers. Adding another YES/NO ballot on the EU might tip the system over the edge.

That is because electoral officials will already have their work cut out to get the existing combination of elections to run smoothly. The PCC elections and the Assembly elections will be run  on different electoral boundaries and even possibly by different returning officers. Add to that the issue of the number of ballot papers, and it is easy to see the degree of forward planning required to get it right. And then add in a referendum?

If that was to be the case, the political demand from Westminster would require the referendum ballot papers to be counted first, in order to ensure that a UK-wide result could be announced as soon as possible. That would mean the results from the Assembly elections could not be declared until late on the Friday, and – after three days or nights of counting – the PCC election results sometime even later.

But I think we can breathe easily. It is extremely doubtful that David Cameron’s government will be in a position to hold the referendum so early. Despite the pressure to bring the EU referendum forward from 2017, it is doubtful that the negotiations to ‘reform’ the EU can be concluded in that time. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, last week spoke of the need for a substantial package of reform and a substantive referendum campaign. From that perspective, the earliest likely date for the referendum poll will be the autumn of 2016.

Glyn Mathias is former political editor at BBC Wales and former Electoral Commissioner for Wales.

8 thoughts on “Combining an EU referendum with the Assembly elections would be a ‘nightmare’

  1. There is something a little sinister about somebody not wanting to increase an election turn out up from the usual abysmal Welsh Assembly election turnout… which are usually under 40%. For comparison, the turnout in Wales for the recent UK general election was between 60 and 65%.

    It might be self serving for UKIP which I admit is a concern… but what message are Welsh politicos sending by calling the possibility of increasing the turnout ‘a nightmare’. Are they saying that they don’t want people other than the usual fervent 40% to turn out? Surely, that in itself is self serving! Particularly when parties like Plaid Cymru get exactly the same number of votes in an Assembly election as they do in a general election (181,704 at the 2011 Assembly election and 182,907 at the recent General election).

    In the peculiar situation where health and education are devolved to the Assembly yet half of the population doesnt realise it (a recent bbc Wales/yougov poll found that half of Welsh voters thought they were still Westminster controlled)….. how can anybody argue against anything that might increase the Assembly election turnout from 40% unless they themselves were anti democracy

  2. Glyn is correct. Spoke with UKIP people at the weekend who want the Referendum next year. They think that Wales will vote No to the EU, and that UKIP will win a load of seats at the Assembly Election. They are very confident and believe that UKIP will soon replace Labour as the major party in Wales.

  3. Ideally the Conservatives would play a blinder and hold an EU referendum before the Assembly elections. A (hopefully) Yes vote to stay in would get the issue off the table and leave UKIP with a busted flush. I am not however convinced that Conservative Central Office cares enough about the prospects of their own candidates in Wales to clear the decks and give them a better fighting chance in the Assembly elections by doing this. So I am with you on this Carwyn !

  4. Personally I think that it would be a wizard ruse to have the Welsh Assembly elections on the same day as an in/out referendum on Europe. There would be more people voting and that would be good for democracy. I can see how Nationalists (Plaid and Welsh Labour, Libdems and Greens) might not want more people to notice the Assembly elections in case the outcome looked much the same as General election outcomes in Wales but surely the objective of elections is to engage the maximum number of people not manipulate matters so that only a few cast their vote. By the time of the EU referendum you can bet that more press coverage supports staying the EU in than leaving…Murdoch has already swung that way, so UKIP may well lose support not gain.

  5. What makes people think the turnout in the European referendum will be higher than in an Assembly election? Europe is one of those issues that is of passionate concern to a minority and a matter of indifference to the great majority who can’t weigh up all the issues and are content to leave it to the pros. The issue that has brought Europe a bit more to the fore is immigration with the arrival of migrants from Eastern Europe but as an issue that is usually a flash in the pan. Peter Griffiths won the Smethwick seat back in the 1960s on the issue of black West Indian immigration. Five years later people had got more used to it and he lost the seat again. People used to worry about Irish immigrants or Jews. Poles will soon be just as natural and accepted. People worried about overpopulation of Britain when the populations was 30 million. People don’t like change but when the roof doesn’t fall in they adapt and get used to it. The referendum will be settled on a low turnout and either way there won’t be a single UKIP MP after 2020.

  6. I would like to build on my earlier comment and ask Glyn Mathias outright if he is anti-democracy?!
    Why is he against those extra 20% of the Welsh electorate (who vote in UK elections but not Welsh Assembly) from being able to cast their vote and have their say in the make up of the Assembly/Welsh Government? Is their opinion not valid? Are they somehow not really Welsh because they don’t vote Plaid Cymru? Lets be honest, we all know darn well that the same 180 thousand people always turn out to vote Plaid whether its a 60% turnout (UK election) or a 40% turnout (Welsh Assembly election).

    It is an undeniable fact that the more people you can get into a voting booth, the better it is for democracy. Admittedly attracting single issue UKIP voters out to vote because of an EU referendum is sub-ideal. However, when all said and done, they ARE registered Welsh voters… so it is a darn sight more democratic to have them there voting than it is to continue to keep the Welsh electorate detached from Assembly elections by keeping the turnout at a hopeless 40% where the fervent/guaranteed 180 thousand Plaid votes gains maximum effect.

  7. I tend to agree that UKIP will disappear without trace after the vote to stay in the EU, I’m quite certain that the UK will not vote to leave but the amount of discussion and newsprint that the run up to the referendum will generate, coupled with the vested interests who will pour money into the “stay in” campaign, guarantees that the turn out will be far higher than the Assembly side-show. Most of Wales reads the British press and watches English TV stations; the Assembly elections pass them by but the EU referendum will not.

  8. Why not get rid of so called ‘democracy altogether!!.The idea that ordinary people like myself cannot ‘multi task’ in voting for different a)bodies,b)individual matters on the same date is surely a JOKE!!. The FM is frightened that the majority who seemingly cant be bothered with the Assembly/WAG voting,would turn out in their droves to end the EEC dominating our lives,and also then express their views on the ‘welshification’ process as well. The welsh political/media classes are living in a ‘bubble’,buttressed by massive ‘inertia’,but once the people do speak they can look out,and their agents in the welsh language ‘industry’.

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