Mark Whitehead 04 November 2019

Getting creative to avoid voting problems

Getting creative to avoid voting problems image

The looming general election promises to be an electoral disaster as polling stations fail to open because all the village halls and public spaces are busy with Christmas pantomimes and nativity plays.

They have been booked for months in advance before the general election was called for December 12 and now the populace faces mass disenfranchisement because there is nowhere for them to register their vote. Democracy itself is at stake.

Well, not quite. According to the administrators who know about such things, it is highly unlikely any constituency will find itself unable to open the required number of polling booths.

The Association of Electoral Administrators, representing the people who run elections of all kinds, accepts that a Christmas poll will present more of a challenge than, say, one held in the spring.

But finding a suitable place for people to cast their votes is not as difficult as some might imagine.

The rules about what kind of premises are allowed as polling stations are in fact extremely flexible.

The Electoral Commission – responsible for supervising elections of all kinds – requires local authorities to carry out periodic reviews of its arrangements and sets out how this should be done.

But the guidelines are surprisingly relaxed about exactly what kind of premises are deemed suitable.

They merely say that local authorities must 'seek to ensure that all electors in a constituency in its area have such reasonable facilities for voting as are practicable in the circumstances', and also require that any polling stations are accessible for people with disabilities.

In practice this means an election can be held just about anywhere as long as people know where it is and voting can take place in private. It is not uncommon for them to be set up in a pub, a caravan in a car park or a garage.

There are tales of polling stations being set up in someone's conservatory. It is not unheard of for voting taking place in the back of a car while waiting for the keyholder for the official polling station to turn up.

A more serious worry is that the Christmas rush could cause problems with postal votes and overseas voters. But all concerned are working hard to make sure the Post Office is able to deal with the extra traffic.

A further concern is that premises for holding the count may be more difficult to book – but no-one is predicting the downfall of parliamentary democracy for the want of finding a suitable space to count the votes. Again, it can be anywhere.

Problems are more likely in rural areas where there are more limited options than towns and cities.

But very often in small villages there can be as few as 50 voters on the register and only a proportion of them turn out so the arrangements can be somewhat relaxed.

Liz Wells, chief executive officer at South Cambridgeshire District Council and the returning officer for elections in the area, has more than 100 villages in her patch.

So far this time around, she told LocalGov, there has been only one problem finding suitable premises and that was easily solved by booking space in the local pub.

'In some villages there is no public space apart from the pub, so we use that,' she says. 'We set up the polling station in a side room, suitably screened off. We use whatever is there.'

'It'll be fine,' she says. 'There are always things that come up that we don't expect. But that is the election team's job. They thrive on this sort of challenge.'

The electoral officers' association agrees. 'Election administrators are very creative,' a spokesperson said. 'They will always find a workaround.'

Photo: vebboy/Shutterstock.com

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