Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission: ‘The idea of marking an X in a box probably seems completely alien’

Ahead of a drive to register one million missing voters, Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, discusses the challenges ahead

The question Jenny Watson gets asked most often is: “When can I vote online?” The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing generation is used to making their choices at the touch of a smartphone button. Yet, come 7 May, it is back to the Dark Ages of pencil and paper.

“The idea that you have to go to a polling station and mark an X in a box probably seems completely alien to their way of life,” concedes Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission. “Now, if we are going to move it to be more relevant, we have to be sure that we can do so safely before we make that move.”

A report released by a commission set up by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, suggested that online voting should be an option in 2020. But Watson has to get through 2015 first.

A drive to recapture the nearly one million voters who went missing from the electoral roll in 2013 starts today. A £2.4m advertising campaign, featuring secretly-shot footage of members of the public flipping out when deprived of basics such as tomato ketchup or the use of a lift, has been designed to make it clear that, unless people sign up by 20 April, they will not be able to vote 17 days later.

It seems like a mad dash. Research carried out last year showed that a quarter of 18 and 19-year-olds, and the same proportion of black people, were unregistered. Last month, the Commission reported that there were 920,000 fewer people on the register in December than expected, mainly students and those who have moved house and failed to register.

Partly to blame is a new online system for students to register themselves. Previously, universities automatically registered the names of those living in halls of residence and parents put their teenage children on the household register.

Ed Miliband has warned of a huge drop in first-time voters as a “disaster for our democracy” but Watson suggests it is as much a consequence as a cause of political apathy.

“The thing that is different is there is less of an engagement with politics and that has to play a part in people thinking, ‘Why might I need to be registered if I don’t want to vote?’” she says.

Hence the drive now. In the last three months, there have been two million applications registering online. On 4 February, National Voter Registration Day, there were 166,000, with 40 per cent of traffic coming from Facebook.

Watson won’t know how complete the electoral register is until it is published, and there have been some software problems in obtaining information from local authorities. However it eventually pans out, she has become hardened to criticism.

“If politics is a contact sport, sometimes the referee is going to end up with a clout to the leg,” she says. Watson is still nursing the bruises from 2010, when some polling stations closed with long queues still outside.

“It will be better this time,” she says, because a change in the law has provided a “safety valve”, meaning any person in a queue at 10pm can be issued with a voting card.

“I absolutely understand why people were angry about it when it happened before. We were…” she pauses, checking herself. “It’s a big thing.” Arguably a bigger blunder came when an extremist party was allowed to use Lee Rigby’s name on ballot papers in last year’s European elections.

 

The Commission oversees elections but it doesn’t run them. The big, local decisions are taken by returning officers and the army of 200,000 count and polling station staff. In preparatory seminars, Watson’s people have given them a key message: “It’s going to be close.”

Dagenham-born Watson, 51, has been labelled a “quango queen” in the past. She has previously held roles at the Equal Opportunities Commission, Banking Code Standards Board, Audit Commission and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management.

Her Commission chief executive, Peter Wardle, will step down in July and she will follow him out of the organisation when her term ends late next year. She leaves behind lots of ideas about how the system can be improved, such as registering to vote on the day and scrapping candidate deposits in favour of collecting the backing of a requisite number of supporters. Or what about making voters show ID at the polling station, as they already do in Northern Ireland, to keep a lid on fraud?

But Watson won’t take a view on whether political fundraising should be overhauled, even though the Commission regulates election finance, because “as the regulator we work with what we have”.

Similarly, she has nothing much to contribute on the issue of TV debates: who should appear, whether they should be put on a statutory footing, if the Commission is the right body to regulate. You can start to see why Nigel Farage has called for the body to be scrapped.

“I had seen that he said that,” she muses. “We carry on working in the interests of voters and from time to time people will like what we say or not like what we say.”

So, what about that idea of online voting?

“At the moment our process, paper-based, is actually very well scrutinised,” she says. “There is very little ability to think that the wrong votes are going to the wrong people because you can see them being put on piles and you can say, ‘Hang on, you’ve made a mistake there.’

“One of things we have got to get right if we are going to do online voting is to make that black box transparent in some way. Nobody can find out how you have voted but equally it is so secure nobody can see where that vote is going and interrogate it.”

I say she sounds cool on the idea, but she disagrees. “You have to see how it can be made to work and, if it can’t, be prepared to say so.”

Electoral role: Jenny Watson’s CV

Education: Coopers’ Company and Coborn School, Upminster, Essex. Gained a BA in communication studies from Sheffield Hallam University (1989) and an MA in 20th-century British history from the University of Westminster (1994).

Career so far: Campaigns and communications manager for human rights organisation Charter88, then chair of the Fawcett Society, a gender equality group, from 1997. Commissioner for the Equal Opportunities Commission from 1999 and chair in 2005. Chair of the Electoral Commission since 2009.

Personal:  Lives in Hackney, London, with partner Andrew Puddephatt, a former Hackney council leader and human rights expert. No children but is “a very good auntie”. Sings in London Philharmonic Choir.

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