There I was, pondering the media reports of our shambles of an election, wondering where to start investigating how it should have been run, when I tripped over the very man who could tell me. No really. An acknowledged expert on these matters.
I bent his ear for the next hour or so on your behalf. I even let my coffee go cold.
His name is David Cowan, and he is in charge of training all the Returning Offices that elect to go on the training course run by SOLACE (something Returning Officers must feel sorely in need of this week) – elect mind you, for it is not mandatory for those in charge of our Electoral process to have any training. There are no statutory qualifications or training requirements for this job.
David is well qualified to do this, for he was Chief Executive for Winchester, and thus Returning Officer and his background has been solidly built in public service and specifically electoral matters.
We started with the basic building block for any election, even those in beleaguered Afghanistan, who we are now training in the art of running elections.
The Register of those entitled to vote. Surely a simple matter? Everyone who thinks they are entitled to vote puts forward their name and you check out their credentials and enter them in a big book. What’s to go wrong?
Oodles it seems. Just oodles. We are talking of a system that originated in 14th Century principles, gathered in 19th Century practice, and then endured 21st Century piecemeal legislation.
Elections are run by Local Authorities. Local Authority areas are not the same as constituency boundaries. A different historical basis for each.
Sooooo, the Local Authority is likely to find themselves responsible for running several Registers, different constituencies, different polling districts, and not just whole constituencies, but bits of them, half a constituency here, a quarter of one there, a bit of another one here…. And when they’ve finished building the register of the bits of the constituency that are partly in their area, but not totally, you understand, they hand the book over to their counterpart in the next Local Authority. Simples?
No, because they’ve been modernised. It’s not a book any more; it’s all on a computer disc. Even easier? Just press a button and merge the lists? Poor misguided reader if you think that, this has been organised by successive governments. Local Authorities have no less than 3 software suppliers, and another 2 independent systems – so naturally the chances of one computer being able to talk to another computer and merge the register is limited. The last few weeks before an election feature a melange of computer experts rushing around installing software patches while Returning Officers tear their hair out. They only have six weeks in which to produce the definitive list of registered voters.
When the books are completed, but not before, the ballot papers can be ordered from the printers. One for each voter right?
Er, No. That’s not simple either. If it’s a Local Authority election, then the Local Authority pays for the printing costs. Since turnout is rarely more than 30 or 40%, they may make a judgement call to only order ballot papers to cover say 80% of the electorate – they have to bear the cost of printing them and pulping the unused one, and it is tax payers money after all. Then they have to decide how many to issue to each polling station.
If it’s a General Election then the Ministry of Justice pay 100% of the cost of the ballot papers, so no excuse for not printing enough eh? Well, unless someone got confused between the two types of election and only ordered 80%, they don’t all have to go on that course, remember. Then again, the printers have been known to make mistakes, guillotine the papers in the wrong place leaving off the bottom candidates name, use the wrong ink, oh lots to go wrong there. And it does.
We shall have to wait a few more weeks for the definitive answer as to why there weren’t enough voting papers to go round. The ‘electoral matters panel’ of the Society of Chief Executives is holding a post mortem this Friday and they will report in secret to the Electoral Commission who will report in secret to the Ministry of Justice who may or may not tell us whether it was that darn gone printer again or someone who got confused between the rules of General and Local Elections.
The ‘someones’ are pretty thin on the ground too. Perhaps two people for an average Local Authority, maybe 4 in a big city like Birmingham. Around 300 of them in all, of whom around 100 in any year go on the training course…….many of them chose to go on the course because the EU elections were run on regional areas, and the voting fiendishly complicated, which completely fried their brains, so there was a sudden uptake in numbers. I should have asked whether the rest were excused on the grounds that they were seconded to Afghanistan to teach them how to do it, but I forgot.
I did remember to ask about the languid attitude I found at the Electoral Commission. It seems that our impression that these were the experts over seeing the election that we should turn to if there was a problem was not altogether correct. (Non? Quelle surprise! Given that they only worked for three of the last six days before the election.)
They are there to take an ‘overall view of the electoral process’, to advise the government of any changes that might be a good idea in the future, to suggest legislation, to push out new rules and regulations which the Returning Officers must inwardly digest and act upon even when they arrive a bare couple of days before the election; a talking shop not a doing shop – as we discovered!
A talking shop run by Jenny Watson, ex Audit Commission, a sprinkling of Chief Executives who have had actual experience of running an election, and, er, ahem, some ‘independent’ members, no doubt drawn from the good and the worthy, but whose expertise to undertake this important task has been impossible for me to uncover.
No, it is the beleaguered Returning Officer still marshalling computer experts in and out of his/her suite who has the statutory duty to actually do something, like make a statement to the Police, which is how we have 60 different investigations in discrepancies between votes and the Register currently underway.
It used to be the Town Clerk, now renamed the Chief Executive, who became the Returning Officer. They used to have legal training. It was their job. These days they are drawn from the field of senior management and may have no legal training at all. They have no choice, the job is theirs. They must wade their way through the unfamiliar legalise of the 2006 Electoral Act, absorb the non-statutory guidance of the Electoral Commission, and dispense the right answer to 50,000 Polling Stations under the watchful eye of the European Commission’s observers from Afghanistan, Nigeria, the West Indies…they carry the can if anything goes wrong, and I ended up feeling quite sorry for them.
That there were problems at around.02% of Polling Stations can only be more by luck than judgement. Those problems represented a 100% fail for the voters concerned, but they represent a minor miracle of snatching a semblance of order from a system designed by unqualified committee and operated by semi trained managerial staff.
This, then, is the system we are exporting at gun point to the Middle East. It defies belief.