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87,214 Londoners disenfranchised for over-voting: Why?
Six months ago, while Donald Trump’s backers were issuing lawsuits to have vote-counting stopped in states threatening to swing from Republican to Democrat, Biden supporters marched with banners calling on officials to ‘Count Every Vote’. My paltry political ephemera collection doesn’t boast such a banner, but, having examined some of the stats of the recent London Mayoral election count, I quite wish it did.
Our elected Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections have from the outset used the Supplementary Vote (SV) system. Voters have first and second choices, leading potentially to a run-off between the two leading first-round candidates and guaranteeing the winner an overall majority – both, in my view, advantages over ‘First-Past-The-Post’, with which – for barely disguised partisan reasons – the Home Secretary plans to replace it.
SV ballot papers have, as shown in the illustration below, two columns of boxes alongside candidates’ names, cunningly labelled A and B for 1st and 2nd choices. Voters are instructed to mark their first choice [X] in Column A, a different second choice [X] in Column B. No first choice, and your vote will not be counted.
With over 60% of the world’s democracies somehow coping with generally somewhat trickier systems of real proportional representation, it seemed surprising that as authoritative an electoral analyst as Lewis Baston reckoned this rubric was “certainly among the more confusing that has been deployed in a British election”.
Seriously less clear than, for instance, that in all previous Mayoral and PCC elections? This year’s 20 Mayoral candidates obviously lengthened the ballot paper and complicated choice-making, but it seems both tough and improbable to chiefly blame the wording.
Something, however, surely did go wrong. For, in the first count alone, 87,214 ballot papers – 1 in every 29 of the 42% of electors sufficiently motivated either to physically turn out or return a postal ballot – were NOT counted, solely for “voting for too many candidates” in Column A: topping easily, incidentally, the totals of 16 of the 20 candidates.
Add ballots rejected for being left blank or voters revealing their identities, and first-count rejected papers totalled over 114,000. That is 4.3%, over double the previous (2004) record, and one in every 23 voters who apparently wanted to exercise their civic responsibility.
To emphasise, with apologies for repetition: first, these rejections have nothing to do with the verification of voters’ personal identifiers, which happens before ballots get anywhere near the count.
The 87,214 are solely verified ballots rejected from the FIRST count of the SV system that gives electors two possible votes and may comprise two separate, necessarily independent, counts. A further 384,000 ballot papers were excluded from that second count, mainly for Column B being left ‘unmarked’.
Figures from my local West Midlands Mayoral election for comparison: 4,148 ballots, or 1 in every 151, excluded from the first count for “voting for too many candidates”. There are naturally some who would happily conclude that Londoners are simply collectively dimmer than West Midlanders, but I suggest there may be other explanations.
As with everything London you must start with sheer size: its 6.2 million electorate. Which is the main reason why vote-counting has from the outset been electronic: e-counting before England and Scotland were even officially piloting it. I, almost needless to say, have nil understanding of how the vital, techie bits of this work, but I have the suspicion of the ignorant, reinforced if anything by seeing it in operation.
I am suspicious of it all: the regularly changing IT companies used; the scanners that jam when ballot papers aren’t torn cleanly from their counterfoils; but particularly the automatised rejection of ballots because the computer can’t ‘read’ their ‘indeterminate’ markings.
Yes, supposedly all computer rejections at the end of this untransparent process may, or may not, be overruled by the local Returning Officer (RO). But, with 87,214 rejections for just one cause on the first count alone … well, the temptation not to turn every scrutiny into an argument with “the machine” must be powerful indeed.
My sense is we have seen two potentially conflicting trends over recent years. Machines are being programmed to reject anything that does not have the specified number of specified markings in the specified boxes. ROs, meanwhile, are being officially instructed NOT necessarily to reject ballots if, for example, the vote is “not marked in the proper place, marked other than by a cross, marked by more than one mark, if an intention to give a … vote for not more than one candidate clearly appears on the ballot paper” ( my emphasis).
That quote is from the Electoral Commission’s Doubtful Ballot Papers booklet for Police and Crime Commissioner and Mayoral elections – which also provides illustrations of acceptable and unacceptable votes. The emphatic message: scrutinise the whole ballot paper, all the voter’s markings, and, if the voter’s intention is unambiguously discernible, it counts – wherever it is actually placed.
Indeed, “unambiguously” can apparently be quite generously interpreted, as Montgomeryshire Conservative MP, Glyn Davies, confirmed after the 2015 General Election. One voter drew “a detailed representation of a penis in my box on one ballot paper. Because it was neatly drawn, within the confines of the box, the Returning Officer deemed it valid.”
Even I reckon that’s a debatable interpretation of intent, but the Electoral Commission booklet does provide over 50 non-salacious examples of allowable and reject-worthy SV ballot papers, including my selected two from each group. Obviously, none are fully completed according to ballot paper instructions – and all, I suspect, would have been among London’s 87,214.
My personal obviously-completely-wrong view, but based on both counts being independent, would be to accept A, C and D’s apparent prioritised choices for each count, and B’s for the first count only – on the grounds that the voter’s intention seems pretty clearly discernible.
But which two would ROs, if called upon, have allowed into at least the first count? Sorry, no prizes! On consideration, though, do their verdicts appear consistent with either the ballot paper instructions or the Doubtful Ballot Papers guidelines? Oh yes, and do you now feel the 87,214 warrant further investigation?
Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and a member of the PSA. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.