Electoral administration lessons from the AV referendum: the Electoral Commission’s view

Last week, the Electoral Commission published its report into the administration of the May’s AV referendum. Despite the high political temperatures during the campaign, the administration got little criticism at the time and so the report rightly reflects that. However, amongst the details are some important pointers to issues that are likely to come up at future elections.

10pm cut-off for voting

The report raises again the big administrative fall out from the 2010 general election: the large queues in some places of people still wanting to vote when the polls closed at 10pm. Since May 2010, the Electoral Commission has called for the law to be changed so that people in the queue at 10pm can still vote and this report repeats that call.

However, given the lack of any new problems on this sort in May, it is unlikely to sway the government which has taken the view so far that letting people in a queue still vote simply changes a timing problem (a sharp 10pm cut-off) for a geographic problem (how do you define unambiguously who is in the queue?) – and anyway that the real problems was Returning Officers who planned very badly, being caught out by turnout levels that were not particularly high.

Linking electoral administrators’ pay to performance

The pay for Returning Officers has long been a concern of mine, including the way Returning Officer pay was quietly increased without anyone working out what the bill would be and the way that Returning Officers get paid in full even when they mess up, as happened most spectacularly in Wolverhampton.

The government introduced a modest reform in this area for the referendum with the legislation saying that local administrators would only be paid in full if their performance was up to scratch.

A little disappointingly, the Electoral Commission review does not really look at the impact of this change and therefore missed out on the opportunity to recommend either changes to this performance related pay system or for it to be applied to future elections.

Invalid postal votes

During the referendum, over 300,000 postal votes (around 6% of the total number returned) were disqualified because the paperwork had not been completed correctly. In some cases this will have been a matter of the fraud checks working as they should, such as rejecting a postal vote because a forged signature did not match the original signature on file.

However, the internal evidence from the rejected postal votes plus the lack of other evidence of fraud on this scale strongly suggests that the vast majority of cases were ones of human error by the would-be voter rather than attempted fraud.

Moreover, these figures exclude postal votes which were not counted because the Royal Mail delayed or lost them. Very little in the way of systematic evidence is gathered about how many postal votes are returned too late in the post, which is a shame as it might be a significant issue, particularly in certain parts of the country.

Two steps which could and should be taken are to gather such data and also to look into options for letting electoral administrators follow up after an election invalid postal votes with the voter. This would not only help identify fraud but would also identify those situations where someone has, for example, made a slip of the pen originally giving their date of birth wrong – which means that all subsequent postal votes from them are rejected without them ever knowing.

Although the review is disappointingly silent on the first point, on the second it recommends:

The UK Government should introduce legislation to enable Electoral Registration Officers to request corrected or refreshed personal identifiers from absent voters at any time in addition to the current required five-yearly refresh, and require
Returning Officers to provide information about electors whose postal votes were rejected due to a mismatch of personal identifiers so that Electoral Registration Officers can request corrected or refreshed identifiers or, where necessary, further investigate possible electoral malpractice.

Reporting of donations

One source of controversy during the referendum was the limited amount of information that the campaigns had to publish before, rather than after, polling day about their sources of funding. On this the Electoral Commission recommends:

We recommend that the Government consider the options for an element of prepoll reporting of donations, and introduce a suitable provision for future referendums. Once the loan controls for referendum campaigners are in place, as recommended above, we recommend that such a pre-poll reporting requirement should also apply to loans.

Electoral Commission – Report on the May 2011 Referendum

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This entry was posted in Election law and News.


  • They don’t seem to have spent much time deliberating whether it is they, the ASA, or someone else who should intervene when one side or the other (or both) makes any claims of dubious veracity.

  • Daniel Henry 25th Oct '11 - 4:57pm

    This report was more about the technical processes behind overseeing the voting and counting the votes.

    Hopefully a different report will address the problems of misinformation ruining the debate.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Oct '11 - 6:34pm

    Why have the Electoral Omission not yet been abolished? The problem with the returning officers’ overpaid sub standard performances was clearly down to themselves, just like the problems with the banking system was down to the regulators.

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