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Solace blog

14th May 2015

Delivering elections is a whole council effort: Reflections from Doncaster

This Monday after the Thursday before, tired elections teams across the country hauled themselves into work after what the Electoral Commission say was the UK’s biggest combination of polls since 1979. A big thanks to the Electoral Commission for dealing with queries really quickly and efficiently.

I have no comment on the results other than that the scale of cuts envisioned for local government is not remotely sustainable. I do want to give a massive shout out to all those who work in elections everywhere, helping deliver democracy. Well done! If your council is anything like mine, delivering elections is a whole council effort.

Elections teams went into this electoral cycle tired by the rigours of implementing Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The rationale for IER can’t be faulted, but implementation has been convoluted, and we must now make it properly fit for purpose. Doncaster’s electorate is 210k and in the 48 hours before registration closed, one thousand new register applications were made.

Many places reported a last minute 10% surge in postal vote applications, all of which required processing.

Elections are stressful, none more so than high profile and combined polls. It doesn’t help when your elections manager leaves a month before the electoral timetable begins and one of your candidates just might end up being the Prime Minister.

So what was my election in numbers?

With combined Parliamentary, Whole council on new boundaries and parish (never again please) polls we went from the highest number of candidates ever being around 160 to 534 (that’s a lot of nomination papers). 61k postal votes issued (and 80%of them returned). 450 staff working at 173 polling stations, delivering over 400 ballot boxes into a count staffed with 320 volunteers, each consuming approx. half a kilo of Haribo. And then there was the media. My communications team managed having 140 accredited media representatives at the parliamentary count with local
and national crews, and indeed international with Dutch TV and Al Jazeera, and I mustn’t miss out accommodating the helicopter and ginormous cherry picker for outside shots. Doncaster has never seen the like and may not do again.

There are massive practicalities of delivering a combined poll. Asking voters to vote for one parliamentary candidate, two or three council candidates and I kid you not, 15 from 24 candidates in one of the parishes is quite a tall order. As you can imagine, processing those particular ballot papers over 60cm in length (two rulers worth) takes quite some doing. My sympathies to the Returning Officer and voters of Bedford who faced parliamentary, mayoral (1 and 2 preference voting), council, and parish polls with a precept referendum thrown in for good measure.

This level of combination is difficult to administer and is confusing for voters. Personally, I’d like to see an election every May for all the different offices, so it becomes just what people do. I’m not suggesting Parliament called it wrong in combining polls rather than running parishes three weeks after the parliamentary and local (I’d have a mutiny on my hands). I do think the level of combination of polls warrants a further discussion and as a Solace elections representative, I would love to hear your views.

If you’re like me, you will do a full elections debrief to improve on things for next time and I’m also mopping up the odd complaint this week. I will be giving short shrift to the voter who accused me of being incompetent because I’d put Ed Miliband on the ballot paper, but not David Cameron (the Electoral Commission advise me it’s not just a Doncaster phenomenon). As I say, it doesn’t take much to confuse, like the time I had to deny an irate woman a ballot paper for her 10year old who was “Mensa material and therefore entitled “. And there was that complaint from the guy who wanted to take a goat into the polling station. Returning Officers across the country could write a book.

For now, to all involved: giant thanks, and now rest, recover, and get ready for what lies ahead. Hold onto your hats…

(This article was first published in the Local Government Chronicle)

Jo Miller, Chief Executive of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Elections and Democratic Renewal