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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Electoral Administration Reform

Friday, June 18, 2010

Meg initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on the administration of the electoral system following widespread problems during the recent General Election.


Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have secured an Adjournment debate this afternoon on the reform of electoral administration. Before I start, I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on his new role in the Government and wish him well in his post. I hope he will be able to respond to my concerns and lay out the Government’s proposals for the reform of this important part of our democratic system.


Electoral administration sparked much discussion following incidents that arose during the recent general election. In total, many hundreds of people were denied their vote - something we should take seriously and should ensure cannot happen again.


In my constituency on Election Day, a number of people were unable to fulfil their democratic right to vote. At one polling station in Woodseats, people who were queuing to vote in the general and local elections were turned away at 10 pm and the doors were locked. Not because they had turned up late or were not on the electoral register, but because of administrative blunders.


That polling station was responsible for 2,772 electors, but it had been allocated only one presiding officer and two poll clerks to officiate. The Acting Returning Officer later disclosed that there had been queues throughout the day, and that extra assistance had been provided, but obviously not enough.


The problem of queues and people being turned away was repeated at three polling stations in the neighbouring constituency of Sheffield Hallam, as well as in Chester, Hackney, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Islington. Similar problems were seen across the country, which points to a problem in administration greater than that found in just one location.


Both the Electoral Commission and Sheffield City Council undertook reviews into what happened on 6th May to find out why those problems were not anticipated. Each review investigated the processes that led to the deplorable challenge to the democratic system, and indicated possible changes for the future. The Electoral Commission review concluded that the substantial queues at a number of polling stations on 6th May came about for a wide variety of reasons. The most common factor was poor planning and an inadequate system, specifically "unrealistic, inappropriate or unreliable assumptions; inadequate risk management and contingency planning".


In addition, a number of reports suggested that many polling stations were not adequate venues for a continuous flow of voters. Some polling stations where voters had difficulty were responsible for more than 3,000 people, while others had as many as 4,500 possible voters. That is contrary to the guidance, which indicates that numbers should not exceed 2,500.


Guidance also recommends that, in addition to the presiding officer, there must be a poll clerk for the first 1,000 electors and one further poll clerk for the next 750, with an extra necessary for the maximum of 2,500 electors. Across constituencies, the Electoral Commission found that there were various levels of staffing. Some provision was effective; other provision, of course, was not.

The Electoral Commission heard that almost all the areas that reported problems with queuing had higher levels of turnout than expected. Some advised that polling staff were simply unable to cope with the demand. A contributing factor, certainly in Sheffield and a number of other areas, was the combination of local and general elections, which of course slowed the whole operation.


Even where extra staff were deployed, the problems were not always resolved, even when several hours’ notice was given. A common problem was that polling station staff were not always clear regarding when they should contact the Acting Returning Officer to ask for help; and when they did ask for help, it did not always result in prompt, decisive action.


The Electoral Commission was made aware that in some areas, after the close of poll at 10 pm, presiding officers continued to issue ballot papers to people who were queuing within the polling stations. Legislation is clear that no ballot papers should be issued after the close of poll.


The Electoral Commission review concluded that there are a number of areas where change is needed. The time allowed for voting is generous - 15 hours in general elections - but the rules for close of poll are restrictive and leave no leeway to allow people who have made the effort to vote to do so. The commission found that there would be benefits if the rules were revised, and that those within the polling station at its closing should be able to vote. That, I understand, requires primary legislation, and I urge the Government to ensure that that happens as soon as possible.


Local authorities and Acting Returning Officers should review their planning to ensure adequate numbers of polling stations and adequate staffing, and address the question of their location. Those local reviews should obviously reflect on the individual problems identified during the May elections. I understand that the Electoral Commission will give more prescriptive guidance on those issues.


We should take the opportunity to modernise comprehensively this country’s electoral administration. We should ensure that we obtain a professional electoral administration that takes into account the recommendations made in the commission’s August 2008 review of administration. The Government could consider changes, such as advanced voting in a suitable location - for example, the town hall - for up to five days before Election Day, and perhaps a trial of weekend voting.


Compiling the electoral register must be a higher priority, and Acting Returning Officers must receive the resources necessary for that to be done. We know that many people - perhaps as many as 3 million - are missing from the register. It is time for greater effort to be put into producing accurate records. Local councils must use all available data banks to get electoral registers up to date, such as council tax lists and information from other local services - Sure Start, for example - that offer services to people who are otherwise hard to reach.


I also propose that the Electoral Commission be given a power of direction. At the moment, it can advise but cannot direct local authorities. There is no way to intervene if there is poor decision making at the local level.


Wider issues need to be addressed. I found on the campaign trail - I am sure this was also true for other Members - that many young people did not know how to vote, where to go, or how to find out about that basic democratic right. We should use advertising much more to reach out and inform people about the basics of voting. A 20-second advert could be sufficient to encourage more first-time and new voters to get out and vote. Too many people are afraid of looking silly by having to ask how to vote at a polling station; a quick advert could resolve that.


The Electoral Commission ran a successful campaign aimed at young people and students, using brands such as Kiss, Heat and Closer magazines, and 4Music. The message was, "Don’t be part of the silent generation," and it encouraged young people to register to vote. The campaign resulted in some 540,000 registration forms being downloaded or posted, 2.3 million visits to the AboutMyVote website and 53,000 calls to the commission’s call centre.


We should also look at the design of ballot papers and how candidates are presented on them, an issue I have raised before in the House. In its 2003 report, the Electoral Commission stated that a randomised system for the names of candidates was the most attractive option, rather than an alphabetical system that provides an advantage to candidates with surnames beginning with A or B. When testing that approach, the commission also recommended that grouping party candidates together could assist both the electors and counting clerks.


As a Labour and Co-operative candidate, I faced an entirely unexpected issue during the general election. It became clear, just as nomination papers were due to be filed, that candidates standing for two parties could not use a party symbol. I had to choose whether to use one symbol and describe myself as standing for only one party, or to not use a symbol and use the names of both parties. That has not previously been an issue, and I have never had a problem before in describing myself as a Labour and Co-operative candidate. Indeed, I have been a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament throughout my time in the House. Legislation needs to be amended to ensure that Labour and Co-operative candidates can present themselves to the electorate in a clear way.


The method of challenging an election result - fortunately, I have never had to follow that path - is complicated, expensive and antiquated. Although I do not want to encourage frivolous attempts to frustrate the democratic process, I want the laws governing the electoral system to be understandable and easy to follow if the need to challenge arises.


We need an election administration system fit for the 21st century. The current system was designed when fewer than 5 million people had the vote; now, we have more than 44 million electors. Being able to vote is a fundamental part of our democracy.


I understand - as I am sure the Minister does - the frustration and anger of those who were unable to exercise the most basic democratic right of giving their vote to the candidate of their choice. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can use this opportunity to ensure that the administration of our democratic system is brought up to date, and that we not only enable all our citizens to register and vote, but encourage them to do so. 

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