Alistair Clark

Reading the news in recent days, readers will have noted various problems with the electoral process as the EU referendum winds inexorably towards its fraught climax. First, most publicly, the Cabinet Office website for registering to vote crashed under the pressure of last-minute applications to register. There was the allegation that the postal vote packs sent out by Bristol City Council and in Swale were trying to unfairly influence the outcome of the vote because a form showed a pencil hovering over the ‘remain’ box. Then, revelations started to emerge that a number of EU citizens had been wrongly sent postal votes and polling cards. EU citizens, with the exception of those from Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, had been specifically excluded from the franchise in this referendum, making it different to that in operation for European parliament elections.

These have not been the only problems with the conduct of elections in recent months. In May’s local elections, Barnet Council hit the headlines when, shortly after polls opened, reports emerged of eligible voters being turned away because they weren’t on the electoral registers that poll workers had received at the Council’s 155 polling stations. The Council tried to fix this by offering emergency proxy votes to people who had been turned away. Many will most likely have not returned to the polls. The Council’s Chief Executive stood down a few days later after this problem.

In recent years, we have also had problems with queues at the close of polling in the 2010 general election, large numbers of rejected ballots in the 2007 Scottish elections and allegations of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets on a number of occasions, with the Mayor being removed from office as a consequence. There have also been difficulties with a shift to individual electoral registration, away from a system of household registration.   

All then appears not to be well with the operation of the British electoral system. Inevitably the initial response to such problems is hyperbolic. An election court judge likened postal voting fraud in 2004 to ‘a Banana Republic’. Some claim attempts to rig the process. One academic assessment of electoral integrity ranked Britain the worst in Europe and 39th of all the countries that it has so far examined, much lower than most people would ordinarily assume to be the case.

While there are clearly problems in the system, the reality, however, is somewhat more prosaic than these high profile stories and occasional ‘election rigged’ rhetoric suggests. What is often not appreciated is how complex a logistical process running elections is. This is not to deny the seriousness of problems in the slightest. It is to suggest that the very complexity of the process itself complicates matters for those that must deliver elections.

For a national election, there are manifold logistical and organisational tasks that must be undertaken with minimal difficulties to run the contest effectively. For example, administrators must comply with electoral legislation, recruit, train and manage large numbers of staff, many of which are non-specialists only employed for the short-term conduct of the election, and also ensure that an accurate electoral register is compiled. Polling stations must also be located and equipped properly. When polls close, the counting process must take place securely and transparently.

It is worth remembering the scale of the challenge. In 2010 for example, nearly 24 million votes were cast in around 40,000 polling stations, with 5.8 million postal votes also being cast. Alongside this, a further 13.6 million votes were cast in local elections in various parts of England. Tens of thousands of people will work at the elections. Electoral administrators cannot achieve this all by themselves. They are reliant on suppliers to deliver ballot papers and other materials on time, on people turning up to work for sixteen hours on polling day, and to many others turning up to count the votes overnight.  

What might explain the difficulties experienced recently? As the registration problem shows, numerous bodies have often unclear responsibilities in this area. The Cabinet Office has been running an electoral registration programme. The Electoral Commission runs party registration, funding and electoral administration and national referendums, but in England and Wales has no direct ability to force local authorities to follow its guidance (although this is not the case in the EU Referendum). Scotland and Northern Ireland have different arrangements with the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland and the Electoral Management Board in Scotland.  And the actual delivery of elections and electoral registration is carried out by local authorities (Valuation Joint Boards in Scotland).

Late demand seems to have explained the Cabinet Office website crash. A problem with printers seems to have explained the Bristol polling card problem, while difficulties with a software provider seems to have accounted for EU nationals being sent ballot papers. The cause of the Barnet polling station fiasco remains unclear but a report will be presented to the Council on 9th June explaining this.

My own research offers some clues into what might affect the quality of election administration in Britain. In a paper entitled ‘Identifying the Determinants of Electoral Integrity and Administration in Advanced Democracies: The Case of Britain’, I deployed a measure of election quality in the 2010 general election, alongside various electoral, organisational and socio-economic indicators.

This research found that a number of things affected election quality. In particular, it found that the better resourced local returning officers were, the better they were likely to perform. Spending on registration was particularly beneficial. It also found that the common practice of holding different levels of elections on the same day led to poorer quality elections, because they increase the demands on returning officers. In separate work on polling station workers (with Toby James) in the 2015 general election, our work has found that the biggest difficulty in polling stations is people being turned away because they are not on the electoral register.     

This can be applied to the EU referendum. Given that it is being held a few short weeks after the May elections, local authority counting officers will have been under pressure to deliver a further major electoral process in short order after the last. This will not have been helped by there being a different franchise for the EU referendum to the local and devolved elections. According to the House of Commons Library, the total cost of running the referendum will be around £142 million. And this at a time when council and central government budgets have been slashed by austerity.

The claim is that thousands were affected by the registration website crash, although some evidence is starting to emerge that many of those were already registered. Apparently, 61,000 were affected in Bristol & Swale by the wrongly printed postal vote card, and a further 3,462 EU nationals by the electoral register problem. Despite criticism by the Brexit camp, it’s unlikely this would decide the national result. Difficulties were caught in time to be resolved well in advance. The registration deadline was extended. And not everyone would have voted the same way, turned out to vote, or followed or even noticed the advice given in postal voting packs. Unlike in a general election, votes are tallied nationally for the final result. The final outcome is unlikely to come down to such small numbers wrong sent ballots, even if the result is expected to be close in a relatively high turnout contest.

The Gould report into the 2007 Scottish election problems argued that ‘almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders’. Most electoral administrators deliver elections without any difficulties under considerable pressure. Yet, problems continue to occur which bring the electoral process into question. Any problem which risks denying eligible voters the ability to vote is serious. Putting voters front and centre needs to be the mantra of all who have responsibility for delivering elections, from the politicians who call the date of referendums, to the central and local government bodies and administrators involved and their suppliers. But, equally importantly, in an era of near-permanent electioneering and austerity, the resourcing and simplifying of electoral administration also needs to be considered afresh.          


Alistair Clark is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University. His recent research has investigated various aspects of electoral administration and integrity in Britain. He is currently completing a second edition of his book, Political Parties in the UK(Palgrave). He tweets at @ClarkAlistairJ.

Image: Abi Begum CC BY-NC-ND