Pondering the polls

By Peter Stanyon | 09 May 2022

After the polls closed on 5 May, focus quickly moved to the results and their effect on local and national politics. That’s the mark of successfully run elections.

Every returning officer, electoral registration officer (ERO) and electoral administrator deserves our thanks for delivering yet again.

Some counts carried on into the weekend, with one final ward declaring today. Local election counts are different beasts to general elections, as so many seats are up at once.

Counting multi-member wards increases complexity. Smaller electorates means closer results. The likelihood of recounts and dead heats increases – as seen in Havering, Southend-on-Sea and Monmouthshire.

Areas running Mayoral counts used the Supplementary Vote system for the final time. This system often requires multiple counting rounds, and recounts are time-consuming. It’s a pressurised task.

Northern Ireland Assembly counts always take days due to their scale and the Single Transferrable Vote system. The chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, and her team knocked it out of the park across three counts.

In March, I said there was a feeling of business as usual. In the end, it was more business as usual plus.

The ongoing pandemic continued to affect core staff availability, introducing challenge. And although less onerous than last year, safety measures remained in place at many polling stations and counts.

Polling station bookings were difficult in many areas due to reduced venue availability. Polling station and count staff recruitment was an issue. COVID illness or concerns, long hours, pay levels and travel costs all played a part.

Recruiting high quality polling station staff is more pressing as the Elections Act 2022 comes in. The Act is where the whole electoral community’s attention now turns.

We agree with SOLACE this will be a complicated programme to implement. We believe it is more important than ever that electoral law be reviewed in its entirety and replaced with a single piece of legislation.

We continue to bang the drum of capacity and resourcing. Both are in short supply but are vital for the Act’s successful implementation.

We wait on secondary legislation for detail on how the new Act will work in practice. This must come soon, with a realistic approach to timescales. Nobody wants to oversee an electoral failure.

Voter ID means polling station staff numbers may have to increase. Extensive staff training and public engagement for voters is key, especially as ID will affect all elections in England, but not all in Scotland or Wales.

For accessibility, election teams need time to consult local people and charities to put the right support in place. There is no one size fits all solution.

It will be more complicated to verify voter registration applications for British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years. In a snap general election scenario, EROs must not be overwhelmed.

The same goes for online absent vote applications, especially with the reapplication window reducing from five to three years. Government websites must integrate with electoral management systems. Making it easier for voters to apply without reducing the burden on EROs is unsustainable and dangerous.

In cases of suspected undue influence, electoral fraud and candidate intimidation, we hope police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service will be supported to take reported offences more seriously. Maintaining trust in our electoral system is vital.

Major change is imminent. It will affect everyone running, standing and voting in elections. We will work with government and across the electoral community to minimise risk and share good practice.

Pulling together and listening to each other is the only way we will continue to make our elections work.

Peter Stanyon is chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators

@AEA_ChiefExec

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