Did late postal votes cost Labour the seat of Derby North?


Amidst the slew of bad results for the Labour party on election night was the loss of Derby North by just 41 votes. Crunch the numbers and the incumbent, Chris Williamson, missed out on re-election by a margin of just 0.09 per cent of the vote – that’s just under one vote for every 1,000 cast. A bitter pill for him to swallow, I’m sure, but could it have been different?

I lodged a Freedom of Information Act request with Derby City Council asking how many postal votes they had received after 10pm on polling day. After that time, of course, votes can no longer be accepted and don’t count. We can’t know how many people turned back en route to the polling station once they realised it had gone 10 o’clock and they were too late to play their part, but we can find out how many unwittingly sent their vote back too late.

The answer? By 12th May, the Tuesday after polling day, the council had received 79 postal votes for the constituency that were too late to count. That’s 38 more than the Conservative candidate’s winning margin. Presumably more arrived after that date, but that’s the date on which I lodged the question so it was the date they used for their response.

We can’t know whether, if those votes had arrived in time, the declaration would have looked different, with Mr Williamson re-elected and the Conservatives’ Amanda Solloway the one on the wrong side of a wafer-thin majority, but it is certainly possible.

Derby North wasn’t the only close result last month. Two other constituencies returned MPs with majorities of under 100 votes, and I asked for the figures from those councils too.

Labour MP Chris Matheson’s 93-vote majority in City of Chester more than outnumbered the number of late postal votes there, which came to 32. And in Gower – where the Conservative Byron Davies snatched the seat off Labour by just 27 votes in a knife-edge result – there were just nine late postal votes.

So, if you’re a postal voter, make sure you make your mark as soon as your ballot paper arrives and pop it into the post the same day. And if you ever need motivation to get out and help a Lib Dem candidate knock up postal voters, just remember Derby North.

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View. He didn’t ask Plymouth City Council how many late postal votes there were in his constituency; he thought it unlikely it was more than the 14,756 votes he would have needed to overtake the victorious Conservative.

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View.

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  • David Faggiani 15th Jun '15 - 4:08pm

    Interesting. An argument for next-morning counting, perhaps? Although, actually, I guess secure online voting is more the way to go really. Some people will always miss a deadline.

  • While you have to accept a result under the current rules, doesn’t this beg several questions?

    Why should we not improve procedures so anyone who wants to vote, can, to eliminate problems caused by tardiness? Postal votes are used by people who are not able to vote in person, quite often because of age or infirmity. Impaired organisational skills is also associated with this.

    Is it possible close results could be affected by disgruntled postal staff or companies delaying the delivery of ballots? It is fanciful, but not unreasonable to believe that a party with a strong manifesto commitment on postal services, challenged by that industry, may be a victim underhand behaviour.

    Ballot slips can be complex if there are multiple elections, or many candidates. This may increase inadvertent spoiling Could this process be simplified using electronic technology?

  • Electronic voting is a minefield from which democracy would not emerge intact.

  • Peter Hayes 15th Jun '15 - 7:25pm

    If postal votes are a problem due to impersonation then people voting from the same IP address is even worse, even if there was a requirement to use an iPhone like fingerprint who knows who is standing behind them.

  • simon robinson 15th Jun '15 - 11:31pm

    I think that this is the first time since the Great Reform Act that Derby North has ever returned a Tory. fwiw

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jun '15 - 1:45am

    David Faggiani
    “I guess secure online voting is more the way to go really. Some people will always miss a deadline.”

    The second sentence there (which is quite correct) removes the only argument, really, for the first. And the first is, respectfully, the end of the secret ballot and possibly the end of democracy. Unrestricted postal voting is bad enough.

  • Electronic voting? No thanks! Counting ballot papers in and counting them out again observed by hundreds of questioning eyes suits me fine.

  • Hugh Warner 16th Jun '15 - 9:42am

    Are rejected votes more of a problem than late ballots?
    We were one of the 100% postal pilot areas. We had problems with very high numbers of ballots being rejected because of mistakes with the authentication. The scale was tens of votes per ward, hundreds over the constituency.
    At the time voters were not told that they had made a mistake. Now the elections office write to all voters whose ballot is rejected (but only after the election) to explain why their vote was not accepted. There is no re-issue for spoilt postal ballots.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jun '15 - 11:11am

    UKIP have credited us with winning the Eastleigh by-election, partly because of an efficient campaign on postal votes. This does consume resources. If there are enough deliverers they can be mostly on foot, or in pairs in cars, but bicycles should be considered in areas with yellow lines.

  • Why do you think the late postal votes would have been cast in a different proportion to all other other votes that were counted?

  • Kevin McNamara 16th Jun '15 - 3:13pm

    Ian C, not sure he does. He’s just saying there is a larger number of late returns than the MP’s majority – making it a possibility.

  • Simon Robinson – no, the seat’s only existed since 1950 (and with substantial boundary changes in that time), and Greg Knight represented it for the Conservatives from 1983 to 1997. So active was he on behalf of his constituents that my namesake earned the Westminster nickname of Silent Knight. On this record he was parachuted into the safe seat of East Yorkshire at the next election and knighted for political service. (Our valued former coalition partners…)

    Electronic voting, definitely not. A quick look at the track record where it’s been used has shown innumerable machines that were very, very hackable – in some cases left running on unsecured WiFi with votes stored in an equally unsecured Access database. I believe there were even cases of machines showing negative vote totals for candidates. Short answer – if you can’t independently verify that the votes counted are the votes cast, don’t do it.

    Two more:
    * Given we’re now looking at late postal votes for Derby North, have we now confirmed that the reported problems with Irish voters being incorrectly denied a vote weren’t an issue?
    * I was actually telling in Derby North on polling day morning for a few hours, at Griffe Field school in Littleover ward. Inside the building with the permission of the officials as it was raining hard, but outside the room. During a lull, one of the polling clerks said to another that she was surprised that some voters seemed to be having to read their names and addresses off the polling cards…! They seemed to regard this as merely unusual, I immediately thought of personation.

  • Cllr Martin Hunt 16th Jun '15 - 4:47pm

    What’s the surprise? The Royal (soon not to to be Royal) Mail delivered the post late. Like every other day. I reckon to guarantee delivery on time posting it 4 days early would have been sensible!

  • If we are looking at late returns, it would be useful to know, particularly for this constituency: the total number of postal votes registered, the total number of completed postal votes actually received by the deadline.

    Because, the real question surely, is whether there is a problem with postal votes.

  • Late return of postal votes goes on everywhere. Here in Watford there is usually a steady stream in the week after the election, despite RM doing a sweep. The late arrivals are usually posted on the day or even after. This April our election officer got one recently posted vote returned, but the ballot paper was from last year!

  • Well late postal votes (due to a strike in London) almost certainly changed the result of the 2007 election for Liberal Democrat Leader. I hope we have a contingency plan in case there are similar problems this time……

  • Can I just say it’s a nice photo of my mum accompanying the piece – don’t know who the other woman is though 🙂

  • …and my comment would make more sense if it had been for the right photo!

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Jun '15 - 9:35am

    That’s … quite disturbing, Iain. 😉

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