Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"More money for electoral administration!" or "Fewer elections at the same time!"?

The Election Law Channel: It’s administrative blunders, not fraud, which should worry us most is right - no-one ever campaigns for the council on the first slogan above (well not successfully anyway). And I agree you have to have some sympathy with election officials at various levels who are asked to do a difficult job without adequate resources.

One of the big news stories about the election was the number of people who didn't get to vote despite queueing for a very long time, hours in some cases. Why this happened in some places and not others hasn't received so much attention but it seems clear to me this was a failing at the local level. Calling for the head of the chair of the Electoral Commission will achieve nothing here.

The basic problem seems to be rooted at the level of the polling stations, with failure to cope with higher than anticipated demand. But was it simply more voters than predicted or were the voters taking longer than expected?

Looking at the various lists of places where there were problems I wondered if it was connected to having local elections on the same day and whether or not this was the first time in a while. Taking The Election Law Channel's list of places, we find the following:
  • Birmingham - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Chester - No
  • Hackney - Yes, first ever, also elected Mayor
  • Islington - Yes, first ever
  • Leeds - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Lewisham - Yes, first ever, also elected Mayor
  • Liverpool - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Manchester - Yes, first since 1979
  • Newcastle - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Sheffield - Yes, first since 1979(?)
  • Weybridge - Yes (local authority Elmbridge), first general/district since 1979(?)
Now okay Weybridge/Elmbridge had combined general and county elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 whilst Chester is an anomaly. But in every other problem area it was the first time for at least thirty years that the general election took place on the same day as local elections. And I think this is what overwhelmed the stations.

A lot of voters will have arrived at the polling stations to be given two or even three ballot papers that included elections they’d heard very little about with voting instructions that can be different on each paper. In my home borough of Newham we have a directly elected Mayor and three members to elect in each council ward, the same set-up as in Hackney and Lewisham (both of which appear on the list above). A voter in any of these boroughs had to express a single choice on one paper, up to three simultaneous choices on a second, and two sequential preferences in different columns on a third.

Whilst Newham hasn’t appeared in reports it was clear from the counts that a huge number of voters got the voting systems muddled up with many people "over-voting" on the parliamentary election by using two or three crosses. Conversely in the council elections a lot of people used only one or two crosses (although these are still valid votes). It was also noticeable that voters were taking a good while at polling stations at times when there weren’t queues. Both of these point to a high level of voter confusion leading to many taking significantly longer than normal to cast their votes. To Newham's credit there was a campaign to emphasise the three different systems.

(As well as asking for help with understanding the ballot paper instructions, voters in some places might also have found themselves asking why they couldn’t vote for particular parties who didn’t have any candidates in some wards or boroughs. But I've not seen the indepth line-up in the areas effected.)

I suspect a lot of areas simply failed to take into account the increased requirements that stem from having multiple elections at once and this may go beyond returning officers to budgets. It’s not a case of simply shoving the usual general & local allocations together, subtracting one set of costs for polling station staff and facilities/equipment hire and adding a little to cover a) extra local ballot papers being printed to cope with the expected general turnout; and b) a bit more time for counting staff to cover separation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that kind of back of beermat budgeting had been made.

The whole problem will need to be investigated in-depth and solutions found. Maybe more money and resources are needed for polling stations. Maybe there shouldn't be combined general and local elections, even if that would depress the latter's turnout. (Other countries do have them combined so the investigation should look at how they handle the problems this brings.) Maybe we shouldn't have so many different voting systems in operation at the same time (something that may get even worse if we change the system for the Commons). Or perhaps we should have a combined ballot paper and introduce a method that allows people to vote for all of a party's candidates at once if they wish. There are many possible ways to solve this but at least one is needed in time for the next elections.

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