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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Denied the Vote

Monday, November 29, 2010

Following a recent question by Meg to Nick Clegg in the House of Commons she was commissioned to write an article for The House Magazine 29th November see below. This follows her debate on the issue in Westminster Hall in mid June (see http://www.megmunnmp.org.uk/press-view-entry.asp?type=Views&id=363).  


Across the country many people were denied the opportunity to vote at the general election through no fault of their own. They were turned away from the polling station at 10pm not because they had turned up late, or were not on the electoral register, but because of administrative blunders. We should take this blot on our democratic system seriously and ensure it cannot happen again.


In my Heeley constituency at one polling station people started to queue around 6pm outside in the rain, and the queues lengthened throughout the evening. At 10pm the people left outside were simply told to ‘go away’ and the doors locked. This polling station was responsible for 2,772 electors, but had been allocated only one presiding officer and two poll clerks to officiate and they simply could not cope.


In the days after the election I received representations from a number of constituents.  One described how they had gone to the polling station first at 6.30pm, then at 7.30pm finally queuing for 30 minutes and not getting to vote.  Another wrote, “Both my sister and I are appalled at the situation and feel we have been denied our right to vote.  We did not turn up too late to cast our votes, we were there waiting whilst two people dealt with the long queue.”


This experience was repeated at three polling stations in the neighbouring constituency of Sheffield Hallam. Similar problems were seen right across the country - in Chester, Hackney, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Islington. A contributing factor, certainly in Sheffield, was the combination of local and general elections, which slowed the whole operation. But the widespread problems illustrated a breakdown in the electoral administrative system greater than in just one location.  


At a national level the Electoral Commission undertook a review into what had happened and my local authority undertook its own. Each review investigated the process which led to this deplorable lapse in our democratic system, and both recommended ways to ensure it didn’t happen again.  


The Electoral Commission concluded that the substantial queues at a number of polling stations had the common factors of poor planning and an inadequate system, specifically "unrealistic, inappropriate or unreliable assumptions; inadequate risk management and contingency planning". They found that there were various levels of staffing with some provision being effective and other provision not. Some polling stations were responsible for more than 3,000 people, while others had as many as 4,500 possible voters. That is contrary to official guidance, which indicates that numbers should not exceed 2,500.


The Electoral Commission became aware that in some areas, after the close of poll at 10pm, presiding officers issued ballot papers to those queuing in the polling station despite the fact that legislation states they should not be issued after the close of poll. The overall time for voting is generous - 15 hours in general elections - but the rules give no leeway for people who have made the effort to vote to do so. The Commission found that there would be benefits if the rules were revised, and that those within the polling station at its closing should be able to vote.


During a debate in Westminster Hall I highlighted this point and the Minister, Mark Harper, seemed sympathetic toward changing the legislation. However, despite significant problems in his own constituency, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has ruled out changing the law to allow the issue of ballot papers to those present in the polling station at close of poll.


We need to modernise the country’s electoral administration and get a professional system that takes into account the recommendations made in the Electoral Commission’s August 2008 review of administration. The Government should consider changes, such as advanced voting in a suitable location - for example, the town hall - for up to five days before Election Day, and perhaps a trial of weekend voting.


Compiling the electoral register must have a higher priority and Returning Officers given the resources necessary for that to be done. We know that many people - perhaps as many as 3 million - are missing from the register.


The Electoral Commission should be given a power of direction. At the moment, it can advise but cannot direct local authorities. There is no way to intervene if there is poor decision making at a local level.


We need an electoral administrative system fit for the 21st century. The current system was designed when fewer than 5 million people had the vote; now we have more than 44 million electors. Being able to vote is a fundamental part of our democracy.


We have to acknowledge the frustration and anger of those who were unable to exercise the most basic democratic right of giving their vote to the candidate of their choice. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can use the opportunity to ensure that the administration of our democratic system is brought up to date, and that we not only enable all our citizens to register and vote, but encourage them to do so.


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