Staring at the bark, while others are separating the wood from the trees


Seasoned Returning Officer Barry Quirk reflects on managing elections in the UK and the logistics of running ‘one of the most administratively cumbersome processes that local councils have to complete’.

Today’s election will be the 22nd election I have managed as a Returning Officer. This includes local elections, London-wide elections, European elections, various referenda as well as four previous UK-wide parliamentary general elections. And each different election presents new challenges of management and administration. Running elections are a professional privilege; it connects public servants with the pulse of our representative democracy – whether that is at the local or national level.

The running of elections requires acute attention to detail, and very close managerial oversight and control. In many ways this is the antithesis of why people become local authority chief executives. They tend to have strong strategic skills and broad approaches to management leadership. But as returning officers they need to avoid examining both the wood and the trees; in elections they are staring at the bark! This is because elections are about focussing on detail, detail, detail. You need to focus on how ballot papers are to be printed, folded and handed to electors; and you need to prepare in astonishing detail as to the precise way in which votes are to be counted and aggregated.

When you are watching the results come in early tomorrow morning, you want to know that the counts are precise, accurate and have security, confidentiality and integrity at their core. And to guarantee that the staff managing, supervising, counting and accounting need to do so with accuracy.

In London we are relatively lucky because, barring a small number of Local Authority by-elections, we are only dealing with the elections across the capital’s 73 Parliamentary constituencies. Returning Officers elsewhere in the country will also be managing the complex task of dealing with Parish Council, Local Authority and Mayoral elections.

As Peter Wardle has previously blogged about some of the challenges in planning for this election and the support offered by the Electoral Commission, I wanted to focus on some of the detailed areas that Returning Officers are have been dealing with over the previous weeks and months.

At the most basic level, this means the project logistics of hiring several hundred staff for just a few days; planning polling station arrangements (usually about 150 in each London borough); printing of hundreds of thousands of ballot papers and polling cards; distributing material throughout the area; and preparing for contingencies in the event of critical incidents and key failures. Given the drive of ‘digital era government and public services’, running elections remains one of the most administratively cumbersome processes that local councils have to complete. If you look at documentary films of the 1950s I would suggest that one of the few things that really hasn’t changed in 60 years is how elections are delivered!

The rise in postal votes is the most significant trend in administering elections over the past two decades. And broadly, over 20% of electors opt for a postal vote. But the necessary checks in the system (in particular the requirement for signature matching) demands especial attention for postal vote authentication so as to prevent and combat potential electoral fraud.

On election day the requirements for impartiality of the media (and the fact that the main political commentators are preparing for the evening) means that polling day itself brings a high level of scrutiny on any real or perceived blunders with the delivery of the election. Polling stations unopened because the caretaker overslept and the staff had to break into the premises can draw unwanted attention. That is why real attention is paid to preparedness planning for the opening hour as well as for the closing of the poll at 10pm.

The run up to this election has been especially challenging for electoral services teams up and down the country, as they have had to deal with the shift to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and the associated back office paperwork and system changes.

IER offers a lot of potential advantages for both voters and Electoral Registration Officers in terms of transparency and simplicity, however getting the message out to the community has proved challenging for Electoral Registration Officers in many parts of the country.

However, despite the difficulties for electoral registration officers nationally, the design of the new system should help eliminate some of the cases of electoral registration fraud that were reported in 2014. Voters will now have to be automatically matched to their given address through their National Insurance Number (NINO) or they will need to provide further proof of identity before they can be added to the register. The national online registration system has been a real success in branding and marketing, and may point the way to how registration should be managed in the future.

This year we have tried to establish greater consistency in the management of elections across London. The newly formed London Elections Management Board is based on the approach adopted in Scotland and used to manage their referendum last year. Experience in the regional voting for the European election and for the election the London Mayor and the Greater London Assembly, shows us that voters want a consistent experience across the capital. If everything goes right for a Returning Officer, the public should only be aware of them as the individual who stands up to read the results and declare that X or Y has been duly elected as Member of Parliament for their local area. And at 4am they need to have a black coffee and concentrate hard: for it is likely that they will have been planning this event for months, and will most probably have been up and at work since 5am the previous day.

About the Author

Barry Quirk is Chief Executive, London Borough of Lewisham, Chair of London Elections Management Board and External Adviser to LB Tower Hamlets Returning Officer & Commissioners for 2015.

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