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Returning officer in clear over general election failings

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A lack of “capacity and capability” in Plymouth City Council’s electoral service undermined the integrity of general election voting processes, an independent investigation has found.

A series of blunders resulted in a number of people - estimated at between 150 and 200 of almost 220,000 registered voters across three constituencies - not being able to take part in June’s poll. 

A council-commissioned report into the events, by former Sunderland City Council chief executive Dave Smith, found postal voting packs for 1,926 people went missing. Of these only 1,839 replacements were received and not all of them arrived in time for residents to be able to cast their votes.

Tracey Lee

Tracey Lee

In addition the report said 35,000 people who requested postal votes also received standard polling cards, causing confusion, while a total of 331 people who received polling cards that were issued on the 5 May were later wrongly removed from the electoral role during a regular review of numbers. Of these voters, 38 turned up at polling stations on election day and were reinstated on the register without the returning officer being informed.

Finally, the report found the count for the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency omitted the 6,587 votes that had been verified and counted for the Efford and Lipson ward. These were later added and did not have an impact on the result. 

Despite the errors, Mr Smith said Plymouth chief executive and acting returning officer Tracey Lee provided “strong strategic leadership” throughout the election period. But he added there was a “wide gap between strategic planning and operational duties”.

Mr Smith said a recruitment process to ensure the council’s core election team was sufficiently staffed was not completed after the election was called in April.

He added: “Despite extensive efforts by the council to address staffing issues there was a long-standing problem with insufficient capacity and capability in the core registration and election service, which was exacerbated by the retirement of a longstanding electoral services manager.” Mr Smith said that this led to the electoral process “lacking integrity, robustness and adequate quality control”.

Councils had just over seven weeks to prepare for the snap election on 8 June. 

With reference to the missing postal votes, Mr Smith said: “It is difficult to see how the council could have been more effective given the constraints placed upon it, particularly that of time.”

The report said council communication to the public and other stakeholders after the problems were identified was “not effective as it needed to be”.

Among a series of recommendations, Mr Smith said the council should quickly recruit experienced electoral registration staff and ensure sufficient resources and procedures are in place, including new electoral management software.

Ms Lee apologised for the failings and said the council had already begun work to make its electoral service fit for purpose.

She added: “We still have work to do but we are committed to getting this right. We will be asking the Electoral Commission, other councils and a further independent review to check that what we have done meets the high standards that Plymouth voters rightly expect.”

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