Scotland politics

Scottish local election: UK ministers 'silent' over vote power plea

Westminster has been "silent" in response to calls for Holyrood to have the power to run all Scottish elections, an SNP minister has claimed.

Derek Mackay said the Scottish government had asked UK ministers to devolve these responsibilities.

But he said it had received no response from the UK government.

Transferring powers to run local council and Holyrood elections was a recommendations of the Gould report into the 2007 election fiasco.

In May of that year, voters were left confused because of the design and number of the ballot papers.

There were also failings in the electronic counting system which saw thousands of ballot papers for the Scottish and local elections rejected.

Mr Mackay, who is local government minister, told a Holyrood debate: "It is absurd that this parliament is not responsible for the election of its members, and that we are unable to give 16 and 17-year-olds their democratic right to vote, even when that is the will of this parliament.

"We have made approaches and the UK government remains silent on this issue, and we will make further approaches."

Voting system

Mr Mackay said an electronic counting system would be used again at the local elections, due to take place in May this year.

He added that the system had been subjected to "rigorous testing" which "should protect against the failures of the past".

With local authority elections using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, where people rank candidates in order of preference, he said electronic counting was "almost inevitable" as counting votes manually would take "many days".

However, he said that research into the design of ballot papers had also highlighted a "continuing issue" that people "did not have sufficient knowledge of the Single Transferable Vote system".

To try to address this he told MSPs that the Electoral Commission would run a public awareness campaign, with part of this "specifically aimed at ensuring electors have the necessary information to be able to cast their votes under STV".

After queues meant people were unable to vote in some parts of England in the 2010 UK General Election, Mr Mackay announced changes would be made so that those who turn up at the polling station in time would still be able to cast their ballot, even if the polling station had closed.

While he accepted it was "unlikely" voters would be lining up for May's council elections, he said: "A person who has presented to a polling station in time, and is held in a queue waiting to cast their vote, may still put the ballot paper in the box after 10pm.

"The Scottish government is the first administration to include such a provision in election rules."

He also revealed legislation was being brought in which would increase the spending limits in local government elections by 17.5%, explaining that these had not been reviewed since 2005 and the rise was in line with the rate of inflation.

Labour's Sarah Boyack raised concerns about a possible low turnout in May's council elections.

These have been held on the same day as Holyrood elections, but are now being staged on their own.

Ms Boyack said: "In no elections do we achieve anything like the full number of people who are eligible to vote to actually vote."

She added that having "decoupled" the council elections from the Holyrood poll, there was now a "serious issue about making sure people do actually turn out on the day".

'Not a priority'

The Labour MSP went on: "Recent by-elections have seen incredibly small turnouts and this election will be the first stand-alone local government election in decades."

Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell said local democracy was "badly undermined" in what she called the 2007 election fiasco.

She said the next election should not be open to younger voters.

Ms Mitchell said: "There will be no shortage of contentious issues which local government candidates and other politicians will have the opportunity to put to the electorate in an effort to gain their vote and increase turnout.

"In these circumstances, with all the funding issues affecting the provision of services to the public, voting for 16 and 17-year-olds is not a priority."

She said that while 16-year-olds have the right to marry, few would take that opportunity.

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