This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Why we need a stronger Electoral Commission

The election may be over – Thirsk and Malton notwithstanding – but the fall out from the polling station queues continues. The Electoral Commission’s Interim Report came out last week. It makes for fascinating – and at times, revealing – reading.
Problems occurred at 27 polling stations, across 16 constituencies. The Commission estimate that they involved at least 1,200 people. As a proportion of the 40,000 polling stations in action during the day (or the 29.6 million people who voted), they are a tiny proportion, but some of the administrative cock-ups found are pretty dire.

Most of the headlines have gone to the Report’s recommendation that the law should be changed to allow people to vote as long as they were in the queue by the time the poll closed. This is, relatively speaking, the easy bit to fix – although it poses some interesting questions about whether exit polls will be allowed to be published when people could still be queuing (a question, curiously, which the Report doesn’t address).

But fixing the problem with the queues is dealing with symptom, not the cause. It’s when you look at the cause of the problem – why the queues occurred in the first place – that you get some of the more interesting findings. As previously pointed out here, there’s no excuse caused by any ‘surge’ in turnout, because there was no surge – turnout was lower than at any election between 1922 and 1997. Instead, as the Report shows, some of the planning by (Acting) Returning Officers was quite astonishingly incompetent. As the Commission noted, ‘the common factors were inadequate planning processes and systems – in particular unrealistic, inappropriate or unreliable assumptions; and inadequate risk management and contingency planning (p.25). Some (A)ROs ignored guidelines about the correct ratio of population to polling stations.

In one of the worst cases, in Sheffield, the St John’s Ranmoor polling station had some 4,469 electors (excluding postal voters); the Electoral Commission recommends 2,500 as a maximum. Others didn’t allow anywhere near enough staff –allocating just one Presiding Officer and Poll Clerk to each polling station regardless of the size of the population being serviced (again, despite the Commission’s advice being that the more densely populated need more staff).

Most jaw-droppingly of all, some councils – the Electoral Commission spares their blushes by not naming them – based their assumptions of turnout on the levels seen in ‘local government elections since 2006’. This is just Grade A Incompetence. Whoever was responsible should never be allowed near an election – of any sort – ever again.

The Commission had reminded councils that parliamentary elections see higher levels of turnout than do local elections, although, frankly, anyone who needs reminding of this is too stupid to be allowed to run a party in a brewery, yet alone an election. The Commission’s report dryly notes that ‘plans were not always based on robust, reasonable assumptions about the possible levels of turnout’ (p. 27). That’s putting it mildly.

The Electoral Commission can rightly argue that it both advised of the correct procedures and indeed that it proposed a change in the law, to allow late-voters, back in 2004. The trouble is that the Electoral Commission always reminds me of that quote of Baldwin’s about the press: ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the age’.

Except the Electoral Commission suffers from the opposite problem: responsibility without power. It’s more a eunuch than a harlot. It can advise, as it did, but it has no power to enforce, and (A)ROs can simply ignore it, as some of them clearly did. Yet when things go wrong – as here – it is the Chair of the Commission, Jenny Watson, who gets hauled round the TV studios, to be shouted at. The answer – contrary to all those who called for her head, or (even worse) for the Commission to be scrapped – lies in a stronger Electoral Commission, one with the power to enforce its advice, and to take direct control of electoral administration in councils which are too incompetent to deliver the basics required by a modern democracy.

Professor Philip Cowley


  1. I'm not so sure this incident makes the case for a stronger Electoral Commission, bearing in mind that it sets performance standards for returning officers which include carrying out proper risk analysis.

    So the failure of returning officers to have systems that could cope with an historically modest increase in turnout shows that those risk analyses failed - and yet those same analyses look to have been sufficient to pass the Electoral Commission's performance standards.

    It's not just locally that there was a failure; the Electoral Commission's systems look to me to have failed too.


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