Who do we trust?

So, Patrick Harvie thinks it’s a good idea for the Scottish Government to trust the British Electoral Commission. But Patrick Harvie also thinks it a wizard wheeze to stand candidates in constituencies such as Perth & North Perthshire where the SNP’s Pete Wishart is defending a majority of less than two dozen votes. All things considered, I’m not inclined to put much faith in Mr Harvie’s judgement.

That is not to say that the British Electoral Commission is untrustworthy. It is only to say that it may not be entirely wise to take Patrick Harvie’s word for it. We should make our own assessment based on what we know, or can learn, about the British Electoral Commission and how it operates.

On paper, the British Electoral Commission looks to be sound. The organisation, which was set up in 2000, describes itself as

“The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK. We work to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity.”

A trawl through the British Electoral Commission’s website is very reassuring. If one takes everything at face value. The way commissioners are appointed, the decision-making processes, the expertise all appear totally satisfactory. One might be impressed by the fact that there is a dedicated commissioner for Scotland (and Wales) and, as the third largest party in the House of Commons, the SNP gets to nominate a commissioner. On the face of it, there seems no reason to disagree with Patrick Harvie’s assessment.

But there’s another organisation which, on paper, looks every bit as independent, fair and impartial – the BBC. And we all know how different the reality is from slick presentation.

But it’s not actually about trust. Whether or not the Scottish electorate can have confidence in the British Electoral Commission is not the point. It is a question of appropriateness. Regardless of whether or not we consider the British Electoral Commission trustworthy, we have to ask whether it is appropriate for an agency of the British state to have oversight of a referendum in which the people of Scotland exercise their right of self-determination. We have to wonder about the propriety of an agency of the British state having significant authority over a referendum in which the British state itself has a massive stake.

Much fuss is made about ensuring that the new independence referendum is ‘legal and constitutional’ in order that there should be no impediment to Scotland gaining international recognition once the nation’s independence is restored. We hear rather less about the fact that what the international community is most concerned about is that the process by which independence is restored should be impeccably democratic. Nor do we hear very much about how important it is that the people of Scotland have total confidence in the process.

We are entitled to question whether the democratic validity of Scotland’s referendum – actual and perceived – is served by the involvement of the British Electoral Commission. Or whether this is likely to be regarded as external interference such as would tend to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the referendum in the eyes of the international community and the Scottish electorate.

Ask yourself this, would you trust the BBC with a formal role in the referendum process? Would you think it appropriate?



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Too much too young

Who is excluded?

In a fallacy-riddled article for Tory Hoose (Indy ref voting age: are the kids United?), a certain Alex Shilling waxes dismissive of the idea that the voting age should be lowered to sixteen for the forthcoming referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status – and, presumably, more generally. I dealt with some of the more obvious nonsense of this piece in my comments, but I can’t be sure that my observations will survive the heavy-handed moderation which seems to be typical of unionist websites where even the mildest disagreement tends to be labelled “abusive”. And the issue is, in my view, important enough to warrant a more detailed examination.

If we truly appreciate the necessity to a functioning democracy of maximum participation, then our default position must be that everyone is entitled. to vote. And I do mean everyone. That must be our starting point. Rather than arguing about who should be included in the franchise, the onus should be on those who wish to exclude certain groups to make a strong, rational case for doing so.

Taking the matter of age qualification in isolation, it is easy enough to make the case that infants and very young children should not be allowed to vote. But because the criteria is age alone the difficulty of making that case necessarily increase in direct relation to the chronological progression. If an individual is too young at a given age simply because they are that age then the grounds on which they are disqualified must become less valid as the individual becomes less young. It is trivial to say that a six-year old lacks the required intellectual capacities to deal with voting, but it is less easy to make that argument when they reach twelve. That is only logical.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the case for disqualifying a person from voting must become untenable at some point. For practical purposes we have to set limit which will, of necessity, be entirely arbitrary because we are not actually using as our criterion any objective measure of intellectual capacity, knowledge, life experience or anything else, but only the length of time since the person was born. And so it must be. Because, given our presumption of a universal franchise, any such test of intellect etc would, in the name of natural justice, have to be applied to everyone.

We already set that arbitrary point at age sixteen. That is currently the age at which individuals are assumed to have the capacity to make informed decisions on such important matters as employment and marriage. So it is for those who wish to continue withholding the vote from sixteen-year olds to make a case. So how does young Shilling set about this task?

He starts by citing his own gullibility in having been induced to vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. But surely this means that he must have been at least eighteen. So he seems to be arguing that people already over the voting age should be disqualified on the grounds that they may be induced to vote one way or another by those whose job it is to induce people to vote in a particular way. Since by his own admission this applies to those older than sixteen it cannot possibly be a necessary and sufficient reason for excluding only a selected cohort of those who might fall prey to the blandishments of politicians.

He then looks for support to an Electoral Commission survey which supposedly indicated that young people themselves were uncertain about whether they are “collectively ready to be given voting rights”. To me, this demonstrates an admirable caution which evidences a maturity sufficient to rationally assess alternative propositions. Which would seem to be precisely the qualities one would be looking for in ones “ideal voter”.

Mr Shilling then gets a bit silly by contending that extending the franchise would only result in lower voter turnout. This confused and confusing argument is based on the notion that “there would simply be greater numbers of eligible but disengaged voters”. Which totally misses the point that eligibility is both a right and a good on its own terms. Presumably not even Alex Shilling would argue that forty-year olds should be banned from voting because some forty-year olds don’t vote.

Lack of political engagement and low voter turnout are certainly problems. But we cannot sensibly address these problems by restricting voting rights to those most likely to vote, while thereby further alienating those who may already be unlikely to do so.

Then we get the old nonsense about people not being allowed to buy alcohol until they are eighteen. This illogically ignores the things we do allow at sixteen and foolishly assumes we must use precisely the same criteria in all circumstances. Alcohol is potentially dangerous to both the user and those around them. Nobody ruins their health by voting.

No good case for excluding sixteen and seventeen-year olds having been made, we must conclude that it is wrong to continue withholding the vote from them. But it is worth adding a few words about why it is important that we promote the widest possible engagement with the democratic process.

It should be obvious that for representative democracy to work it must also be participative. Only by achieving the greatest possible participation, particularly in terms of voting, can we ensure that the result is a truly representative parliament. Or as close to that as we might hope to achieve. That is why I say that our default position must be literally all-inclusive. Because the ideal of representative democracy is that all are represented. The practicalities, of course, require a compromise. Our priority must be to ensure that this compromise does not impose unnecessary constraints on participation so that our governing institutions are as representative as they can be. Excluding sixteen and seventeen-year olds is, as I have argued above, an unnecessary constraint.

Low voter turnout empowers extremists. Because extremists will always vote. It is the most moderate and/or the most open-minded an uncommitted among us who may tend to give it a miss. By not voting you are helping to ensure that those on the extremes of the political spectrum secure an undeserved proportion of the vote. So it is in the interests of all of us to ensure that all of politics, and in particular the electoral process, is as inclusive as we can make it. This inclusiveness is a necessary precondition for participation. It makes no sense to complain about low voter turnout while defending the exclusion of a significant chunk of the population.

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