As the UK heads to the polls for ‘Super Thursday’ today’s headlines are being taken over by events in Barnet. Reports are that many people are being turned away from the polls because their name is not on the register. It seems that many polling stations had wrong/incomplete registers. The Independent are reporting that:
‘An estimated 250,000 people were going to the polls in Barnet to vote for the London Mayor, London Assembly members and council by-election in one ward.’
It so happens we’ve been doing some research on this. Here are some important points:
Voters are often turned away from the polls
- Alistair Clark and I did a survey of polling stations at the 2015 general election. We found that the polls generally go smoothly in the UK, so events on this scale are not representative of the whole of the UK where the polling process generally goes smoothly. BUT...
- We did find that two-thirds of polling stations turned away at least one voter because their name was not on the electoral register. The current evidence is therefore that voters are turned away from the polls more frequently than thought. In general though, it is because the electoral registers are not complete. Their levels of completeness have been in long-term decline and this has been accelerated by the introduction of individual electoral registration. It is not clear yet what the source of the problem is in Barnet, however.
2. Staff morale and resources in electoral services is a key problem
- Today’s Super Thursday is the first election since the completion of individual electoral registration (IER). In December 2015, people who had not re-registered under this system were removed from the electoral roll.
- But one under reported effect of IER is the effect that it has had on the staff who run elections. In the Missing Millions report that I published with Bite the Ballot last month it was revealed that electoral services up and down the country have faced a perfect storm of challenges under IER. Moving to IER has involved major organisational and technological change in the context of major cuts to local government funding. Half of electoral administrators said that they had thought about leaving their job at some point in the last year. Why does this matter? Because running elections is difficult and we will only see more problems like those seen today in Barnet without experienced, dedicated and motivated staff who aren’t stretched beyond capacity.
3. This could be avoided in the future with resources and electronic poll books
- Individual errors happen. And with millions of votes being cast, and thousands of staff working on election day, this has to be acknowledged. But in our report, we suggest some reforms that could help problems of this sort being avoided:
- Stronger investment in electoral services.
- Monitor the resources and workplace experiences of electoral service staff
- The use of electronic poll books. In Chicago, rather than relying on correct paper copies to be delivered to polling stations, polling staff have access to a live electronic register. This ensures that the latest and correct register is available and allows citizens to vote at any polling station.