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.

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