The Electoral Commission has produced an initial report into what went wrong with voting procedures on May 6th.
They have found that 'at least' 1200 people were denied the right to vote despite being in a queue at a polling station at 10pm. They have also found that returning officers had not taken sufficient account of the likely time voters would take to cast their ballots - particularly in areas which also had council elections, had put too many electors into some polling stations and had cut back on staff and ballot papers in some cases.
The Commission is quite right to point out that returning officers had no option but to turn electors away if they had not been given their ballot paper by 10pm. That is the law and (apparently with the exception of Lewisham) they applied that correctly. The Commission is now saying that this law should be changed. In my opinion they are right to make this call. My beef with the Commission is that they have been overseeing elections in the UK and recommending changes for a number of years. Why on earth have they not made this recommendation before now? Whenever I conduct election observation missions overseas (and I know that their staff do so as well), I find that the countries I visit have a law that states that anyone queuing at close of polls is entitled to receive a ballot. It seems eminently sensible and I find it staggering that this small but important rule change has not been recommended by the Commission before now.
The other failings appear to be the fault of either cost-cutting, bad planning or incompetence by election officials at a local level. Of course the majority of the blame for these failings needs to rest with those local staff and returning officers. But what is going to be done about it. In cases where the number of people disenfranchised is greater than the electoral majority, there is a slim but real chance that a (very expensive) court case could order a re-run. In other cases we are told that disenfranchised electors may be offered financial compensation. I would like to see two other course of action as well:
- in cases where there were the greatest levels of official failure the police need to conduct an investigation on the grounds of breach of official duty. This is a recognised offence for people such as returning officers but it is hardly ever used, even where the fault was blatant. Of course, I don't know the complete facts in any of these cases and would not wish to pre-judge any investigations. But there have to be investigations rather than simply promises to learn lessons.
- the Commission must also take some of the responsibility. As mentioned before, whilst they do not have control over elections, they have been monitoring and making recommendations for some time now. If that role is to mean anything, it should be to spot things like cost-cutting and take steps to avoid it rather than just sit on the sidelines bemoaning a Victorian system.
I do not subscribe to the view that the Electoral Commission should be abolished. I think it has a substantial role to play. But the current Commission has been happy to sit back and offer polite comment far too often when they should be tearing the failing system apart and demanding that Parliament legislates.
To regain credibility, the Commission must now draft a complete Bill with all the changes it believes are necessary and then create hell until Parliament passes it. They must also up their game when it comes to identifying risk. Go and watch a few more elections overseas and learn from what they do differently and come back with lessons so that the rules are changed before the next catastrophe.