As polling got underway in the European elections in the UK, stories began to emerge about EU nationals being turned away from polling stations because they were not properly registered. As the day went on, more and more claims were being made. #DeniedMyVote began trending, with well over 20,000 tweets being sent out by lunchtime.
But their troubles could have been predicted. The UK’s system of electoral administration has been creaking for some time. The government has long known about a range of issues that need improvement.
These European elections were particularly important to EU citizens in the UK, because the franchise for the 2016 Brexit referendum had excluded them from voting on something that clearly had a major impact upon them. Many saw this as their first real opportunity to express their views on Brexit at the polls.
The problem with EU citizens in the UK arose because they were required to submit an additional form along with their electoral registration form before they could be fully registered. This additional form certified that they would only vote once – in the UK rather than the country where they hold citizenship.
Amid fears that this additional requirement would disenfranchise EU citizens, campaign groups for EU citizens, such as The 3 Million, had complained that this requirement was not well publicised. They made considerable efforts to communicate this more widely. They made representations to the Electoral Commission and to local authorities. Questions were also asked in parliament around this issue to attempt to get government to resolve it, to little effect.
There were also reports of British citizens registered as overseas voters having similar problems. Some said they had not received their postal votes in time to return them. The legal timetables for sending out such ballots were inevitably tight. And, when coupled with the vagaries of domestic and international postal systems, it was almost inevitable that some ballot papers would arrive too late.
Why did this happen?
Lots of voters inevitably feel disenfranchised. Many are calling it a scandal. In reality, issues of this sort had been brewing for a long time, and had largely been ignored by government. My own research into election administration sheds some light into how such difficulties arose.
Election administrators are the unsung heroes of the electoral process. Most of the people who work in polling stations and at counts are volunteers, employed only for the duration of the election itself. They are not experts. Professional election services and registration teams are very small – with as few as three people working on them in some local authorities. The speed and uncertainty of events in recent years has put them under immense pressure. The Association of Electoral Administrators has been very publicly offering members support to help them cope in the run-up to these European elections.
Electoral administration has been underfunded in the UK for some time. Austerity has taken its toll on budgets. And, in 2014, individual voter registration was introduced. This was intended to tidy up the register and ensure accuracy but, instead, many people have fallen off registers. People have no easy way of checking whether they are registered, which not only means that some people are no longer on the register but also has the perverse affect of driving people who are already registered to try to register again every time a vote comes up. Such duplicate registrations inevitably increase the workload of small electoral registration teams.
Spending on election administration is vital if elections are to run smoothly. In research done for the Electoral Commission on the 2016 EU Referendum, we found 43% of our respondents saying that they had insufficient funds to maintain their register. The short notice with which the European elections were called has inevitably driven up costs for both registration and administration.
Research I have carried out into polling station workers (with Toby James from the University of East Anglia) has shown that the most regular problem faced in polling stations is not electoral fraud – as is often claimed – but people being turned away because they are not on the register for whatever reason. The Electoral Commission has started collecting data on this and is asking election observers for more feedback to help understand the issue.
Nor are problems with overseas voting a new problem. We identified this as something to be addressed in research we did for the Electoral Commission on the 2016 EU Referendum.
The government is thinking about asking voters to show ID at polling stations, after running pilots in local elections in 2018 and 2019 – a move that many fear will lead to people being disenfranchised. There are may be problems in electoral administration in the UK, but impersonation fraud is not one of them.
Electoral Commission data show that, while there were 266 allegations of electoral fraud in the 2018 local elections, there had been only one conviction and two cautions – and none for impersonating another voter. That’s from an eligible electorate of around 21.5 million voters.
These European elections are a stark reminder that more pressing problems are at hand.
Responsibility for running elections in the UK is confused. The Electoral Commission has no powers of direction over local returning officers or registration, except in specific circumstances around running referendums. It can advise, but not direct. Meanwhile, returning officers run the elections in their locality, with support from their local authorities, but are not responsible for the national picture.
The Cabinet Office has a role in delivering electoral administration, but this has not been an obvious priority given other competing demands. Uncertainty around Brexit and the short notice for of these European elections will surely have played a part in voters being turned away on polling day.
The UK’s electoral administration is clearly creaking at the seams. Administrators achieve a lot, under very difficult circumstances. But there is only so much they can do. #DeniedMyVote should not have happened. It did so as much by government omission as anything more sinister. But the government has been warned about this problem – again and again.