“General elections – the role of the Acting Returning Officer”

Given that our Acting Returning Officer (CEO Matk Williams) is STILL making multiple mistakes after many years in the job (including being summinsed by a Parliamentary Committee to explain some of his more controversial actions)

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2014/10/14/official-transcript-of-eddc-ceo-evidence-to-parliamentary-committee-on-voter-engagement/

he might appreciate this refresher and he can”t then plead ignorance:

“Ben Standing sets out some of the steps Acting Returning Officers should be taking now, with another general election seemingly around the corner.

If the news is anything to go by, we are likely to have our third UK Parliamentary Election in five years soon. This is despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which was intended to take the politics out of calling elections.

If an election is called, it will be against a backdrop of a charged political climate and the recent creation of a new and potentially major political party (the Brexit Party).

From the perspective of an Acting Returning Officer the combination of inexperienced candidates and a charged political climate heightens the risk of something unexpected happening and of challenges being made against the way the vote has been managed.

Although mistakes do happen and can usually be rectified, the reputational damage that can flow from even simple errors can be significant. A mistake with the allocation of block votes led to 41,939 votes being counted in a small constituency in England that only had 7,000 registered voters and where only 2,477 ballot papers had been issued. The mistake led to the formation of a residents’ campaign group, a court supervised recount and costly High Court proceedings.

Now is an opportune moment for Acting Returning Officers to review their election plans, to ensure that they meet the relevant legal requirements and that contingency arrangements are in place to respond to a snap election.

The role of an Acting Returning Officer is to ensure that the election is administered effectively. It should be remembered that Acting Returning Officers can appoint one or more persons to discharge any of their functions; however they cannot delegate responsibility for delivering the election.

So what should Acting Returning Officers be doing? In theory, as electoral law hasn’t changed, Acting Returning Officers should be doing exactly the same as they have in relation to previous elections. However in practice there are a number of steps which may assist Acting Returning Officers. These include:

considering the candidate registration process. There may be an increase in inexperienced candidates (both due to candidates being fielded by the Brexit Party and the high profile loss of the Conservative whip for over 20 current MPs). Have candidates followed the correct procedure? Additional resources may be required to assist candidates with the registration process.

considering how the current procedure would cope with a significant increase in turnout. For example is there sufficient capacity in the polling stations, have sufficient staff been trained in order to ensure that votes are verified and counted in a reasonable timeframe (with the verification having taken place before 2 am). Considering this at an early stage is essential, as adjusting plans later is often more difficult.

reviewing the voter registration process. If an election is called, it is likely to be seen, at least in part, as a vote on how (and if) we should leave the European Union. It is possible that there could be a surge in the registration of new voters. Sufficient staff need to be trained and available to processes applications. In my experience, just because the public has been reminded to register to vote a number of months doesn’t mean that a significant proportion won’t try to do so within a few days of the deadline. Councils must be able to deal with any last minute registrations.

training polling station staff to manage difficult situations. Whether or not we leave the European Union is an emotive issue and polling station staff will need to know what to do in the case incidents in and outside the polling station. This could include being aware of how the police should be alerted if necessary (often local police forces will provide a dedicated number that polling station staff can use).

reminding staff how to deal with media. There is undoubtedly going to be significant media interest and staff will need to be reminded of what they can and cannot say.

staff and the public should also be reminded of the significant number of electoral offences. The integrity of the count is paramount.

a person may act as a proxy for any number of close relatives, but a person may not have more than one proxy at a time. The proxy must be registered in accordance with the relevant deadlines, but contingency plans should be put in place ahead of time to deal with any emergency proxies required.

ballot papers must by law be printed in accordance with the directions for printing in the appendix to the relevant election rules. It is strongly advisable that as a minimum, enough ballot papers to meet a 100% turnout should be printed (I have encountered a situation where a higher than average turnout almost left the local authority with insufficient ballot papers – a situation that no Acting Returning Officer wants to find themselves in!).

although polling stations close at 10pm, any voter in a queue at their polling station at 10pm may still apply for a ballot paper. Efficient planning should ensure that queues should not cause significant delays, however if it is anticipated that queue management may be an issue prior arrangements should be agreed with the local police.

Ultimately Acting Returning Officers need to ensure that they fully understand the legislative framework concerning the conduct of the election, and have an effective management procedure in place, so that they are able to respond to any unforeseen or unusual situations.

Acting Returning Officers who, without reasonable cause, are guilty of any act or omission in breach of their official duties are liable on summary conviction to an unlimited fine. Accordingly it is important that acting returning officers have the correct insurance cover.

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/314-governance-a-risk-articles/41542-general-elections-the-role-of-the-acting-returning-officer

Yet another electoral roll mess up

From a correspondent:

As both my kids will be at university this autumn, they decided to apply for postal votes. I downloaded the application form but the return address on it is still The Knowle at Sidmouth. Whilst it may be an oversight on EDDC’s part, the cynic in me wonders if this is perhaps a cunning ploy to disenfranchise those in my daughters’ positions who are studying out of area, but still want a say in what happens.

As it is, I have saved the reply paid envelope from the application which has the Honition address on it and will use that instead. East Devon will pay for it, rather than me, and hopefully the form will arrive safely.

EDDC moved its HQ in February 2019. It seems our Electoral Officer (CEO Mark Williams, for an extra fee, of course) didn’t update the registration website – perhaps too busy having unminuted meetings with developers …

We must hope that mail is still being redirected and that ALL of it arrives at its new address …

The East Devon electoral roll – is it up-to-date and fit for purpose this time round?

Householders are currently receiving a form from EDDC about checking that the household occupants are registered to vote.

It comes with a prepaid envelope and an alternative option to complete online. If you choose the latter, one can end up being told the information has already been supplied. The wording implies the visit to the website may have been unnecessary.

If it WAS unnecessary then itis a waste of time and money – or perhaps the wording could be more appropriate if it WAS necessary?

One wonders about the scale of this and whether it really is necessary to ensure inclusion on the electoral roll? Perhaps CEO Mark Williams’ (Election Officer, for an extra fee and staff budget) ought perhaps to be better targeting – making extra sure he doesn’t “lose” another 6,000 or more voters like he did in the next-to-last general election.

Home visits to addresses in ever-spreading Cranbrook might be a good idea along with some of the other large new estates that have sprung up all over East Devon since the last election (there must be hundreds of new households). How many of those, in the current political climate, might prefer a candidate other than incumbent Tory Swire and where a few hundred votes mught be crucial?

And he doesn’t have the excuse of it being too dark at night for his canvassers to go out … like he said when he tried to explain to Parliament why telephone contact (sometimes to people newly arrived in the area where their telephone numbers would not usually be known, or these days where they are likely to have only mobile phones) was more preferablethan canvassing

Which you can read about here:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2014/10/13/highlights-of-mr-williams-audio-transcript-of-evidence-to-the-parliamentary-select-committee-on-voter-engagement/

Scrutiny definitely needed this time around … where the stakes are so very high.

“An election could happen at any time – electoral law needs to be urgently updated”

Owl says: recalling the mess EDDC’s CEO made of past elections (where he “lost” 6,000 voters), and when he was later forced to explain himself (not all that well) to a parliamentary committee:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2014/10/14/official-transcript-of-eddc-ceo-evidence-to-parliamentary-committee-on-voter-engagement/

this is LONG overdue!

“Last week, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee published its response to the government’s Online Harms White Paper, where it called for urgent legislation to safeguard future elections. Echoing the ERS’s calls, the committee noted that ‘[w]ere an election or referendum to take place later this year, campaigns would be fought using electoral law that is wholly inadequate for the digital age.’

The government’s long-awaited white paper on online harms was published in April 2019 and offered a package of measures to tackle online harms (e.g. cyberbullying and disinformation) and to regulate internet companies who do not adequately protect their users. This would be achieved by establishing a new statutory duty of care towards users, which would make tech companies responsible for users’ safety online and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. Compliance with this duty would be overseen by a new independent regulator. Both the duty of care requirement and the establishment of a regulator were proposals included in the DCMS committee’s Final Report on Disinformation and ‘fake news’.

While it welcomed the (limited) measures proposed to tackle disinformation, in its response the DCMS committee said it was ‘disappointed’ with the ‘scant focus’ the white paper paid to the urgent changes that are needed around electoral interference and online political advertising.

In particular, the committee said that the measures included in the white paper to tackle digital campaigning were limited and did not address the committee’s recommendations on creating a category for digital spending on campaigns (currently parties and campaigners do not need to provide a breakdown of online spend) and a searchable public repository where information on political advertising material would be available.

The committee also lamented the fact that white paper did not acknowledge the risks of foreign investments in elections or the role and power of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups in influencing elections and referendums. Regarding the first point, the committee will be taking further evidence this month on how anti-money laundering regulations may be adapted to digital campaigning, particularly given the use of online payment systems such as PayPal.

Despite the government’s commitment to extending imprints (disclosures stating who paid for and promoted campaign material) to online election material, the committee voiced concern about ‘how long it may take in practice for digital imprints to be enshrined in legislation’ given the government’s lack of urgency in addressing the committee’s other proposals.

The committee is therefore calling for ‘urgent legislation’ to be brought forward at once so as to bring electoral law in line with digital campaigning techniques, particularly with regards to digital imprints, and has asked the government to respond by 24 July with a commitment on this.

Most of the calls reiterated by the DCMS committee in their report on the online harms white paper have also been made by the ERS and our contributors in our report on online campaign regulation, Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century, namely:

  • Extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending.
  • Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable.
  • Ensuring that those charged with enforcing the rules have sufficient enforcement powers and resources that act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing.
  • Establishing a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaignersaround online campaigning and the use of personal data.
  • Comprehensively reviewing our electoral law, ensuring that it is updated and future-proofed for the digital age.

Protecting the integrity of our elections and referendums is vital to ensuring public confidence in our democratic processes, and we welcome the DCMS committee’s calls for updating our outdated campaign rules. We hope the government will tackle this unregulated online Wild West with the urgency it deserves.”

An election could happen at any time – electoral law needs to be urgently updated

Has our Electoral Officer messed up again?

EDW comment:

I’d like to thank Mark Williams but I cannot. As we will be away for the European elections we applied for a postal vote. We had a letter on Tuesday from MW graciously allowing us our democratic right and saying that voting papers will follow.. Today’s post was the last opportunity but no voting papers have arrived. Thus we have been deprived of our vote. It seems that in his case past performance is a guide to the future! I wonder who will blame this time?”