It’s a coincidence that it’s mental health awareness week. The mental health of many electoral staff will have been tested in the last few weeks and in particular since Thursday morning. All elections are huge exercise in logistics and organisation. That in reality so few significant problems were encountered across the complex series of elections in Great Britain is a tribute to teams in all areas.
Issues with a number of print and postal voter suppliers have been reported, as well as some errors that required batches of postal votes to be reissued. The returning officers concerned will review what happened to discover whether the errors arose within their small and overstretched teams or with the private sector suppliers.
Every election is a learning process, whether the problems encountered are small or large. We will redesign our ballot paper account (again!) to make it even more difficult for tired presiding officers to avoid mistakes, when they complete it after running a polling station for 15 hours. The ‘grass skirt’ counting method may not be the only way of counting votes in multi-member wards but we found that count supervisors need more rigorous training in calculating the final count totals.
The demands on electoral teams are excessive even in a ‘normal’ election. Some of it is self-inflicted. I visit all the polling stations on the day of the poll, to meet the staff and also so that I can say to candidates and agents that I observed the voting process at each location – although that is no guarantee that I will see any ‘incident’. It is easier in a compact geographic area but getting around 43 polling stations took a total of over nine hours - including my now mandatory stop at St George’s Hall, Bewdley for coffee and a slice of excellent cake (check out the picture on Twitter!).
For core electoral teams the process demands too much of the human mind and body. My electoral services manager worked almost 20 hours continuously from early on Thursday to the early hours of Friday – and ‘all’ that we had to do on Thursday night was receive the ballot boxes and deal with about 300 postal votes that arrived or were handed in on polling day. He was back for the verification and main count less than six hours later on Friday morning. Pity the poor souls in Hartlepool and elsewhere who dealt with an overnight count. The UK may have left the EU but staff deserve the protection of the working time directive.
There remain significant difficulties created by election legislation and cultural attitudes that make the task more challenging than it needs to be. It can’t be sensible to carry on with a system that relies on handling thousands of pieces of paper in the middle of the night and early hours of the morning when staff have already been working more than a full day. When humankind can fly a micro-helicopter on the surface of Mars or design several vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year, surely there needs to be focus on utilising cyber-secure technology to drag the electoral process out of the Victorian era: when will we see electronic voting booths (or even voting on line) or artificial intelligence used to count the vast majority of votes if we continue to use little pieces of paper? Most returning officers have been using optical character recognition technology for years to check signatures and dates of birth on postal voting statements.
Conducting a ‘normal’ election when the nation had not emerged fully from a pandemic was avoidable. Many returning officers argued for an all-postal ballot. There was ample time during 2020 for the Government to legislate for one if it was determined to hold elections in May, and for electoral administrators then to capture postal voting identifiers (signature and date of birth) from all voters. Instead, they had to spend inordinate time making elections as COVID-safe as possible, struggling with far greater difficulties in recruiting and retaining polling station staff than normal and having to find different venues for voting and larger venues for counting to maximise social distancing.
All returning officers and their staff will be looking forward to greater ‘normality’ for elections in May 2022. But elections are never static: requiring voters to produce photographic ID would mean a reworking of arrangements by the time we get to the general election in (at the latest) 2024.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC