Comment on online absent vote applications being launched from 31 October 2023

We remain firmly of the view that launching online absent vote applications (OAVA) on 31 October 2023 is a mistake at this time. We believe this decision should be urgently reconsidered.

We support OAVA being introduced – but only once a fully functioning and end-to-end tested system is ready. This is the universal view of the electoral sector.

Returning Officers (ROs), Electoral Registration Officers and electoral administrators will do their best to implement the new system, but we worry the current agile iterative approach exposes them to untenable levels of risk. With ROs held personally responsible for the safe delivery of elections, it is imperative the system works correctly from launch.

Local by-elections and referendums are held every week, and introducing an untested system is an unfair burden on the professionals running them, particularly when they are held liable for any errors in delivery.

A steady stream of election changes is also increasing risk levels. New postal vote handling rules are coming in from January for the 2 May 2024 scheduled polls across England and Wales, and voter ID is still bedding in.

The 2 May polls will be the first time voter ID is used in Wales, and in the quarter of English council areas that did not hold elections this year. Scotland will only use voter ID countrywide for the first time at the next general election.

Add changes to voting eligibility for British citizens overseas, and to voting and candidacy rights for EU citizens post-May polls, and the complexity of running elections is set to increase even more.

Of all these changes, OAVA is the only one that is not a manifesto commitment. It is our view that introducing it after the 2 May 2024 polls will give developers and electoral administrators alike more time to make it work from the get-go.

In the meantime, we will continue to support our local authority colleagues running polls in November and December 2023. They face navigating a system that is universally accepted as being unfinished, ahead of promised upgrades in January 2024. As is always the case, they will be working hard to ensure electors are not disadvantaged.