Election petitions remain important to the integrity of UK elections, but reforms are urgently needed

Wilks.HeegCaroline.Morris_webUntil recently, widespread confidence about the integrity of UK elections meant that almost no information was available about election petitions, the only legal mechanism through which a UK election result can be challenged. Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Caroline Morris present significant new data about elections petitions from 1900 to 2016. Their findings fill an important gap in our historical knowledge about electoral integrity and inform current debates about the need to reform the petition mechanism.

Beyond a few specialist election lawyers, knowledge of election petitions is rare. In its current form, as a private legal action heard by a special election court, the election petition was part of the Victorians’ efforts to tackle electoral corruption. As vote-buying and intimidation were eradicated, the mechanism was widely assumed to have become redundant. During the 20th century, the number of cases dwindled, and no systematic records were kept of legal challenges to election results. Among the few cases that attracted any attention, the best known related to the overturning of Tony Benn’s return at the 1961 Bristol South-East by-election, on the grounds that he was a member of the House of Lords.

However, since 2004, there has been a renewed interest in election petitions. The most obvious trigger was the re-emergence of petitions alleging large-scale corruption. Infamously, in election circles, Richard Mawrey QC’s (2005) judgment on the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions referred to ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic’. Petitions have also revealed failings in the running of elections. For instance, an election court voided a close result at the 2004 Hull City Council elections after finding that voters in Derringham ward had instead received postal ballots relating to the election in Marfleet ward. Continue reading

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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