Elections – onwards and upwards

Peter-Wardle

Outgoing Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the delivery of this year’s general election and considers what further improvements can be made.

This blog coincides with the launch of the Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the May 7 elections.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the General Election under the headline ‘Expect the unexpected’. It wasn’t really the outcome I was talking about – but if readers want to credit me with clairvoyance on that front, that’s fine!

This was my third General Election as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission – and after each one, we reflect on what happened, and what further improvements can be made.

We ask voters how it was for them – and we can take a good deal of satisfaction and pride in the fact that trust and confidence in our electoral system is so high. This year, nine in ten people told us they thought the elections in May were well-run. This is a real tribute to the team effort that is put in by Returning Officers and their staff, local police forces, and of course campaigners, to make sure the elections run as smoothly as possible for voters.

But the election world never stands still – there are major polls across the UK in May 2016, and a UK-wide referendum due before the end of 2017. In our report on the administration of the 7 May elections, we’ve made a number of recommendations that would further improve voters’ experience and sustain trust in our democracy.

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

Quirk

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.

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