The chief executive and monitoring officer responsible for a constituency with one of the smallest majorities at the general election have been suspended after it emerged more than 1,000 voters were disenfranchised.
Newcastle-under-Lyme BC chief executive and acting returning officer John Sellgren and head of audit and elections Liz Dodd were suspended following an investigation by the Association of Electoral Administrators.
This found that 500 postal voters in the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency were disenfranchised, close to 1,000 potential electors based at Keele University were not included in the election register and two people not entitled to vote actually did so.
Labour’s Paul Farrelly held on to the seat by 30 votes – the third smallest majority on election night. He polled 21,124 votes with Conservative Owen Meredith in second place with 21,094 votes.
Council leader Elizabeth Shenton (Lab) said: “We have never experienced significant difficulties like this in our borough before during the many elections we have run whether they were for Parliament, Staffordshire CC, national referendums or our own borough council.
“However, this review indicates a number of problems. I sincerely apologise on behalf of the council for that situation but we can’t turn the clock back and right any wrongs which occurred at that time.”
The report, by Andrew Scallon, a former director of electoral administration at the Electoral Commission, found Newcastle-under-Lyme’s elections team were hard working but inexperienced, led by consultants rather than permanent staff and under pressure due to the short-notice of the election.
One of the consultants, who oversaw the county council elections in May but was unavailable to cover the general election due to holiday plans, had failed to switch the software into ‘election mode’ which meant 509 residents who applied to vote after the usual monthly deadline for voter registration were not added to the system.
The second consultant, who had no experience of individual electoral registration and was only available on a part-time basis, twice failed to complete a vital stage in the software system for sending out postal votes. This resulted in 391 UK postal votes and 204 for overseas addresses not being sent.
The report concluded: “The management of the entire registration process was chaotic. Nobody was in charge of a process that was left in the hands of staff who had neither the knowledge nor experience to deliver an effective registration service. The hardworking staff were overwhelmed by the volume of applications.”
The report was critical of the chief executive and monitoring officer for failing to spot and remedy these issues ahead of the polling day, despite complaints from residents. However, it praised their “openness and candour” in taking part in the investigation.
The report recommended the council act to appoint a permanent electoral services manager and support staff to build the experience of the team, provide more training on the operation of the elections software and improve internal and external communication in the run up to elections.
It also called on the government to consider the current process for challenging election results as despite the “disenfranchisement of a significant number of people” raising significant questions about the Mr Farrelly’s “mandate”, the timescale for challenging a result meant this could no longer be challenged.