Friday, 7 May 2010

"We don't think it's an issue" - the scandal of voters denied

Last night many hundreds of people across the country were denied the ability to cast a vote in the general and local elections. Let's make no bones about it. It's a scandal which mars yesterday's election.

I've got a fair amount of experience with different types of election. Before being elected, I worked as an election expert for the Electoral Reform Society and monitored countless elections around the country, including the electoral fraud cases in Birmingham, Hackney and so on. I also led the UK election monitoring missions eight times, including to Bulgaria, Serbia and Guyana.

In every single one of the countries I have monitored in - about a dozen in all - the law states that those queuing at close of polls are allowed to receive and cast their ballots. Thus any problems in the administration of elections do not disenfranchise voters. To me, that is the fairest system and I don't see why the law in the UK is different.

But different it is, and one of the main tenets of monitoring elections is that you should see that the exisiting law is applied correctly.

So we have to look at what went wrong in Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester and so on. The returning officer in the last of these is quoted by the BBC as saying that they don't see it as an issue as the number of people disenfranchised would not be enough to overturn any General Election result. That may be legally true, but it's a cop out of the worst order. Confidence in our electoral system demands that the process is transparent, fair and effectively administered. It seems clear to me that returning officers and councils let down voters in a number of areas yesterday.

To those who argue that the polls are open from 7am to 10pm and voters should have gone earlier, I say this. As polls are open until 10pm, it should be a resonable assumption for a voter to be able to turn up at any moment before that time and be able to vote. On election day all parties keep campaigning until the moment the polls close. I have persuaded electors to go out in their dressing gowns at 9.55pm because their vote might make all the difference. In the future, parties may face the response 'why should we put ourselves out when we are not certain to be able to vote at all'.

Did councils and returning officers try to cut costs on this election by not employing enough staff or printing enough ballot papers? The inquiry should find out. But the first duty of a returning officer is to conduct elections properly and they are semi-detached from the rest of the council in order to give them the freedom to do so. Failing in their jobs leaves them open to a legal charge of breach of official duty. I hope that if any returning officers are found to have failed spectacularly then prosecutions are seriously considered.

Yesterday's turnout was a mere 65% on average. Yes it was up by 5% on last time, but such a rise - at a time when electors knew that this could be a game changing election - was hardly unexpected. Election officials should have been able to cope and it is a cause of much concern that they were not.

In short, if councils, the incoming Government or the Electoral Commission think that yesterday's fiasco was not a serious problem then they clearly have little understanding of the public's shaky confidence in our democracy. The promised inquiry should begin immediately and be prepared to ask awkward questions and come up with uncomfortable results.

1 comment:

Paul Canning said...

Alex

As I commented on the Guardian, one of the aspects of this which has become evident through the reporting is the media's lack of local government expertise. Why didn't they have the sources to quickly surmise why the failures have happened?