Chief Executive of The Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the practicalities of running a national election, and how this general election differs from 2010.
The huge task of delivering the range of different polls taking place on 7 May – parts of England will see the highest level of combination of polls since 1979 – is well under way and some key milestones have been passed with the publication of the notices of election at the end of March and the close of nominations on 9 April. Returning Officers and electoral administrators came into this year’s election cycle with a solid foundation. Nearly nine in ten voters we talked to said the elections in May last year were well run. This shows that the hard work of elections teams across the country is continuing to inspire public confidence. It’s a great start, but it doesn’t mean any of us is tempted to be complacent.
What can we expect from next month’s elections? UK general elections bring their own unique challenges – and this one is already different from May 2010.
The level of interest is, of course, likely to be greater than at any other UK-wide elections since 2010, so we’re expecting a higher turnout. The Scottish Independence Referendum showed all the challenges that come with high turnout – but also how those challenges can be successfully managed. For example, higher turnout means more voters at polling stations. After the experience of 2010, where long queues at 10pm resulted is some voters being turned away, we worked with the UK Government and Parliament to ensure that the law was changed. This May, voters can be issued with a ballot paper if they are in a queue at their polling station at close of poll.
We’re also expecting many hard-fought, close contests. With polls suggesting rising support for the smaller parties, assumptions about large majorities that were true as recently as 2010 have had to be re-assessed. Returning Officers can expect to see more close results than they’ve been used to, with high interest at every count (and that interest expanding via social media), and the potential for more requests for recounts – sometimes from people who are less familiar with the system and how it works.
Effective planning is therefore one of the main ingredients for a successful poll. One of the main jobs of The Electoral Commission is to help make that preparation easier. From the guidance we have already issued to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, to the performance standards we have in place to ensure that voter registration and elections are managed as effectively as possible, we offer all sorts of guidance and support, day by day and hour by hour throughout the election period.
Of course preparation isn’t just about gearing up for election day itself. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The focus on numbers registered and not registered is as high profile as it’s ever been, and this is set to continue. Of course IER has brought significant challenges, but we were pleased that safeguards were built in so no-one on the register falls off as a result of the change before the elections in May.
The publicity around IER is helping Electoral Registration Officers, who have worked hard to get as many people as possible registered before the elections. And IER provides opportunities we’ve never had before, such as the ability to register online for the first time. To date, over two million online applications have been made.
And on one aspect of the Commission’s other work, this election will be the first since Parliament introduced new rules governing spending by non-party campaigners. We’ve done a great deal to explain the new rules, but we’ll also be monitoring their impact carefully throughout the campaign.
So yes, there are some big challenges this year – but also real opportunities and efforts to engage the electorate in new ways, working collaboratively to build confidence in the electoral system.
I will blog again about the type and range of issues we deal with during and beyond the election period.
About the Author
Peter Wardle is Chief Executive of The Electoral Commission.