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‘Reform election system before "car crash" occurs’

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Calls have been made for a debate to take place about reform of the voting process, amid concern that the existing paper-based system is inefficient, deters younger voters and is vulnerable to fraud.

Professionals involved in elections used a debate at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers summit in Bournemouth to warn of an impending “car crash” in coming years due to polling placing an intensifying burden on council staff, leading to a greater likelihood of difficulties.

Jo Miller, Doncaster MBC’s chief executive, said: “The system is knackered. I look at the demands on staff and the decreasing resources and we still have these old fashioned elections.”

Ms Miller, who is Solace’s deputy elections spokesperson, called on senior officers to avoid a ‘more of the same’ attitude on electoral administration, adding: “We are responsible professionals and if we don’t lead this debate which brings about change there will be a car crash.”

She urged consideration of reforms, including regional or sub-regional partnerships taking over election administration, and said the election by thirds system under which many councils hold polls each year was unnecessarily costly – axing it saved her council £220,000 annually.

Mark Heath, Southampton City Council’s director of place and one of the country’s most experienced returning officers, urged officers not to “wait until the car crash” before considering reform.

In reference to staffing cuts, he said: “It places a massive capacity issue for me as a returning officer. A lot of the people that I have used at polling time have gone or are going. This raises the question of should we [as a council] be the people [overseeing elections] in five or 10 years’ time.”

He described election by thirds as a “huge waste of money” and also mooted mandatory voting or the offering of discounts on taxes for people who voted.

Mr Heath, who officiated over his first election in 1990, was particularly scornful of those who wanted night-time election counts to continue.

“The people who are responsible [for counts during the night] are like the walking dead. I despair when people say it’s part of the theatre of the elections process.”

Mr Heath said overseas voters wanting postal votes often only received their voting papers after polls had taken place. Although he said he had some doubts about digital voting, he suggested e-voting could be trialled with this group of the electorate.

Luton BC chief executive Trevor Holden advocated digital voting with the savings made used to send staff out to help prospective voters who may be deterred by a digital system, such as the elderly. Digital voting could be trialled in parish polls, he suggested, with the technology potentially meaning it is in future easier to hold local referenda on many issues.

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