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The professional privilege and pressure of electoral administration

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Commentary on running elections

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Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election prompted returning officers to warn that, given the short time period between the local and general elections, the pressure on election staff would be “enormous”.

This election comes at a time discussions over reforming the voting process have potentially already made returning officers nervous about the future.

Last autumn a report by Sir Eric Pickles recommended introducing voter ID to elections, much to the chagrin of returning officers and experts such as Democratic Society founder Anthony Zacharzewski, who warned deterring large numbers of voters was a far greater barrier to a functioning democracy than a small amount of fraud. There were already plans to pilot voter ID in 2018, and in the Conservative manifesto published last month, the party pledged to take forward Sir Eric’s main recommendation, as well as to introduce first-past-the-post to metro-mayor elections.

Introducing voter ID would introduce yet another logistical challenge for returning officers already faced with voters who are often unsure of when and how they can vote, and indeed which layer of government they are voting for. Consider, for instance, the plight of election staff faced with droves of people who were so unused to – and mistrustful of – the process of voting during the EU referendum that they refused to use pencils instead of pens on their ballot papers lest MI5 rub out their crosses and redraw them in the ‘remain’ box.

Conspiracy theories aside, there are already a number of logistical problems crying out for reform. Last month returning officers reiterated their call for an online system on which people could check whether or not they are registered to vote. This came after some councils reported 50% or more of the applications they received on the day of the registration deadline were duplicates, at least in part because of the switch to individual electoral registration.

Adding ever-more complications will be especially unwelcome in light of recent horror stories such as the basic printing error that meant hundreds of people in the 2016 Barnet LBC council elections were prevented from voting – a mishap that led to chief executive Andrew Travers resigning from his post.

On occasion, a constituency will come under scrutiny as the media search for a result that will shed light on a broader story, piling on even more pressure.

Take, for instance, the Stoke-on-Trent by-election in February, seen as a test of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in a community considered to have been left behind by ‘metropolitan elites’. Fiona Ledden, acting returning officer, wrote for LGC on how staff coped with international media descending on the city, and on the tight security necessary at the count – so tight, in fact, that Ukip contender Paul Nuttal’s entry was queried at one point.

Alternatively, consider Doncaster MBC chief executive Jo Miller’s account of the 2015 general election, in which one of her constituencies was contested by then-leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. This upped the ante considerably; one confused voter complained that because Mr Miliband was on their ballot paper, David Cameron should have been as well. Then there was the host of lesser, if a little bizarre, complaints – from the voter who was miffed when they couldn’t take their goat into the polling station, to the woman who was irate that her 10-year-old child was denied a vote. Ms Miller said the combination of different elections held on that day in Doncaster added to the difficulty and called for a rethink of the local election cycles.

In fairness to local authorities, however, glitches like the Barnet fiasco and instances of electoral fraud such as that at Tower Hamlets are few and far between. The EU referendum provides an example of election staff’s competence; despite a record turnout, 77% of people contacted by the Electoral Commission said the referendum had been well run.

Lewisham LBC chief executive Barry Quirk described running elections as “a professional privilege” that requires “acute attention to detail and close managerial oversight and control”. Despite increasing pressures, it seems councils are maintaining these standards on the whole – but it’s clear that some reforms could make running elections far easier.

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