We’ve made strategic errors on UK elections

By Mike Bennett | 09 November 2020

The US election has been one scary ride of meta-mindboggling moments. In some kind of earth-quaking culmination of four years of folly, the campaign and now the count and the disputed transition are testing the outer limits of the US constitution, its legal framework and political culture.

Speaking to colleagues in UK government and in academia over recent weeks and months, we can’t help ask how our governance, professional practice and culture would cope with such a series of tradition trashing disruptions.

In France, polling for Presidential elections close at 8pm, with results announced a few hours later. Friends there are agog that there is no national framework in US for the country’s national elections.

And the issue of timing has made me reflect and I worry that we have made a number of strategic errors in recent years concerning the organisation of our elections that we ought to reconsider in the light of the Trump effect. 

Another US President, Woodrow Wilson was one of the founders of  public administration as a professional discipline in the late 19th century. His insistence that before we say how the state should be run, we should decide what the state should do, ought to remain a critical frame of reference for us all. 

Applying this test to electoral administration in the UK, I think that we have lost sight of the need to put purpose before process. 

Not long ago in 2010, UK electoral administrators lobbied successfully (I declare, I was part of the effort) to change the Representation of the People Act to give Returning Officers greater discretion on the timing of counts locally. Many have used this to institute next day counting. 

The arguments deployed in favour of this change were partly structural, managerial and cultural. Structurally, other legislative changes had led to considerable additional complexity in terms of the administration of postal votes, boundary changes and combined counts which were more time consuming and costly. Because the legislation wasn’t coherent it is difficult to do everything required on the night. The managerial reasons concerned workforce organisation, health and safety, ensuring people didn’t work when tired. Both these issues are important and would require to be dealt with a different way.  The cultural argument really got to the nub of the matter, and this is where I think we need to reconsider.

The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) captured the cultural argument when it said in that: ‘The Count should not be a race but a serious and accurate process … There are no prizes for delivering the first result. The real prize is for delivering an accurate result which is widely accepted and not subject to legal challenge.’ Or, as one prominent returning officer was fond of saying, these are ‘elections not entertainment’.

While I agreed with that then, I disagree with that now. This isn’t just a limited and narrow view of what elections are, but also I think a false one. 

Coming back to Woodrow Wilson, it is false because the purpose of elections is not just to produce an accurate arithmetical result. The purpose is to create a result that people hear, understand and accept. For that speed and spectacle are essential. 

In the old days of what appeared to be reliable and eternal stability, we may have thought that announcing the result when no one was listening was ok. At least the count had been efficient and we hadn’t inconvenienced anyone in the process.

But now, in these different times where the system and professionals may not trusted be by one or more of the potential victors long delays in count outcomes and significant additional complexity in terms of local rules, create weaknesses that can be exploited to undermine confidence in results.

Different counts taking place at significantly different times means that the outcome, the implications for power and authority, is delayed and not known. The lag causes a loss of transparency because low visibility of results weakens the understanding and acceptance of the system. This impacts on the results it produces and hence the authority of the outcome. 

In other words, in prioritising how elections are run as bureaucratic processes, we have overlooked the role of elections in creating democratic legitimacy. We need to focus more on the social importance of elections as a shared practice; one which is reinforced through repeated performance, by predictable milestones and by its role as a public occasion. The drama and spectacle of elections - including the visibility of the count and the announcement is not just for political geeks. As we can see in the US election, when there is delay, the sense of public occasion is lost. The delay and the myriad of local rules has produced an opaqueness that is working against accountability. Because there is no visible widely understood and accepted independent process of adjudication, the sense of collective interest and authority has been lost - and will be difficult to get back.

Elections need to be well run of course -  that is necessary for legitimacy. But we have emphasised the process too much and lost the sense of what is most important. Part of the purpose is a public ritual with a compelling drama which creates a shared understanding of the result. To get this back, returning officers should use their discretion to work towards a common purpose, creating a public occasion that increases confidence in legitimate democratic outcomes by putting greater emphasis on speed and spectacle in their next Counts.

Mike Bennett is director of Public Intelligence and held a number of senior policy positions at SOLACE 1998-2011

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