It’s administrative blunders, not fraud, which should worry us most

The problems with electoral administration ranged far wider than those which caught the headlines. Perhaps the weirdest came in one polling station in Burnley where the caretaker was getting everyone turning up to vote to sign in and out of the building “for health and safety” reasons.

More seriously, there were queues of people left wanting to vote when the polls closed at 10pm last Thursday in Birmingham, Chester, Hackney, Islington, Leeds, Lewisham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Weybridge. (If you were a voter caught up in these problems, the Electoral Commission wants to hear from you as part of its review. You might also want to sign up at I Couldn’t Vote.)

This problem is not unknown. It happened in 1998 when the Liberal Democrats won Muswell Hill ward in Haringey, getting the party’s first councillors in Hornsey & Wood Green, but the combination of the scale of the problems and the speed with which social media spread the news and put it in front of journalists means that the issue got widespread media coverage.

Many other issues, however, did not attract anything like that amount of media attention: the polling station with the wrong ballot papers (Brent), the area that ran out of ballot papers (Liverpool), the postal ballot papers telling people to vote for the wrong number of candidates (Haringey), the ballot papers with the wrong logo (Preston), the postal ballot packs with wrong instructions (Vale of Glamorgan), the polling cards listing the wrong voting times (York), the envelopes missing their windows (Kensington & Chelsea), the council writing to residents rejecting legally valid applications to join the electoral register (Havering), the missing postal ballot papers caused by printing problems and then a sorting office closing temporarily (York again), the official list of candidates nominated which contained an imaginary Parliamentary constituency as someone’s home (Tower Hamlets*) and so on.

There were, though, many media reports of postal fraud concerns. Unlike the administrative problems mentioned above – all of which happened and many of which directly affected numerous voters – the reports of possible postal vote fraud are, in the main, so far just that. There are very important exceptions to that in Tower Hamlets (where the evidence appears very strong) and West Yorkshire (where two arrests have already been made). Beyond that so far the evidence of postal vote fraud is very limited when compared with the known administrative problems and the number of people affected by them.

So whilst the battle against electoral fraud should not let up, it should not overshadow the question of how well or badly elections are run. The Electoral Commission’s usual post-election review of fraud and its special review of the 10pm queues won’t address this bigger question.

I have some sympathy with hard-pressed electoral administrators who have to live with the reality that no councillors or council candidates campaign on the platform “More money for electoral administration!”. Children’s services, schools, libraries, the local playgrounds – they all come first. It’s not just a matter of money being directed to these services; time and attention from the most talented senior staff and councillors also usually goes on those services with relatively little left for electoral administration.

Whilst it may explain, it should not excuse the poor quality electoral administration in some places. Nor does it excuse the old-fashioned outlooks still in some electoral administration quarters which view the public rushing to register or get postal votes as an inconvenience and the actions of candidates as an annoyance.

Elections are there to let the public choose between candidates; electoral administrators are there to serve that process. Too many still appear to forget that as the administrative pressures pile up.

Moreover, the surge in turnout which caused problems in some areas was not a particularly large surge in turnout. Where ballot papers ran out in Liverpool, for example, turnout was up around 10 percentage points on last time. That is a significant increase, but hardly of the scale that should catch out electoral staff.

It highlights one question that should be asked by and of the Electoral Commission. Risk analysis and contingency plans have been a central part of the appraisal process used to rate how well or badly electoral administration is run by local councils. That process failed to pick up the risks being run by councils whose plans could not cope with a significant increase in turnout, but one still at modest levels by historic standards. How good then is that appraisal process?

By comparison, the question of what to do if there are still people queuing to vote at 10pm is a fairly straight forward one. The current law is clear (tough, it’s too late); it could be changed to allow anyone in the queue to still vote (similar to what shops do) or it could be changed to allow polling hours to be extended in special circumstances (as other countries do). There are good arguments for and against different options but at heart it is simply a matter of picking to stick with the status quo or going for one of those two alternatives.

As a footnote, perhaps one good thing that will come out of all this is a rather better informed media. Too often journalists make mistakes such as confusing postal vote ballot papers with application forms, which confuses the issues and hinders scrutiny. As with electoral administrators, I have sympathy with hard-pressed journalists who are required to write about a wide range of technical subjects without being given the time to really become expert in them. Even so, the end result means the media often does not play the role it could and should in holding people to account accurately and meaningfully.

* Tower Hamlets council regrettably so far has declined to respond to my queries about other apparent errors in the election paperwork.
UPDATE: The other queries now look to have been resolved.

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This entry was posted in Election law, Online politics and Op-eds.
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10 Comments

  • Simon Baptist 9th May '10 - 9:54pm

    In the discussions about electoral reform the administration should not be forgotten. Coming from a country (Australia) with, in my view, very well run electoral administration, there are some things that are very striking about the way things are run here.

    Why does the electoral infrastructure have to be duplicated 600+ times? There are many good local electoral officers I’m sure, but there are lots of incompetent ones, or people who are just not able to run things as professionally as a national authority could. When I first enrolled, the admin officer in my local council changed my address(!) without asking or telling me…I don’t know why but I think it was because I was living in University Halls and they had a number of addresses, and the officer decided that everyone should be down at the same address. It is also too easy to be on the roll in multiple locations. Anyway, here’s my list of changes. Interested to see what ‘locals’ think about them.

    1) We need a national electoral roll.
    2) Elections should be run by a centralised authority who can maintain the roll, apply rules consistently and with greater professionalism.
    3) We should be able to vote at any booth in the constituency, if not anywhere in the region or country. This is done in Australia, a much larger place than the UK, and makes it much easier to vote for those on the move.
    4) Elections on Saturday!
    5) For election geeks it would also be nice if the results were released at the polling station level, and if there were progressive totals released as the count went on…but I know the drama of the declaration has a long history here.

  • Iain Coleman 9th May '10 - 10:01pm

    I have sympathy with hard-pressed journalists who are required to write about a wide range of technical subjects without being given the time to really become expert in them.

    If only there were some kind of global communications network, linking together databases of relevant information and accessible via a powerful searching mechanism.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th May '10 - 10:01pm

    This is digging around the edges of something I’ve noted before: the biggest problem facing us is not conspiracy, but incompetence. While there are always some who seek to abuse systems, they are invariably far more who do so without intending to.

  • Iain Coleman 9th May '10 - 10:05pm

    Simon Baptist:

    I don’t think centralising is a good idea. At least with the current system a problem in Brent only affects Brent. With a centralised system, perhaps there would be fewer errors, but there would be much greater scope for a catastrophic global error.

  • “It’s not just a matter of money being directed to these services; time and attention from the most talented senior staff and councillors also usually goes on those services with relatively little left for electoral administration.”

    Someone – usually the Chief Exec – gets extra remuneration for being the Returning Officer. That tends to suggest they should ensure that it does get sufficient time and attention.

  • “any potential issues I saw are laid squarely at the Electoral Commission’s door rather than the local elections office’s application of their rules.”

    The Electoral Commission does not make the rules for elections, Parliament does. Returning Officers are completely responsible for following these rules whilst the commission merely provides advice and cannot force the RO to do anything. What issues should be laid with the Commission? The RO accepts the 20k fee and should therefore accept responsibility if things go wrong.

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