Another Tory dirty trick during the general election campaign?

“The Conservative party allegedly operated a secret call centre during the election campaign that may have broken data protection and election laws, according to an investigation by Channel 4 News.

An undercover investigation by the programme has found that the party used a market research firm to make thousands of cold calls to voters in marginal seats in the weeks before the election.

Call centre employees working on behalf of the party used a script that appeared to canvass for support rather conduct market research. On the day of the election, call centre employees contacted voters to promote individual candidates, which may be a breach of electoral law, the investigation claimed.

At the start of the election campaign, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, wrote to all the major political parties reminding them of the law around telephone calls and data protection. She said that calling voters to promote a political party was “direct marketing” and was regulated by law.

The government also announced during the campaign that it wanted to tighten up the laws on nuisance calls and a bill on the issue was included in the Queen’s speech.

The Channel 4 News investigation, which ran over several weeks, found that a team employed by the Conservatives rang voters from a call centre in Neath, south Wales.

Operating from a script, the staff carried out calls for “market research” and “polling”. Identifying likely Tory voters in marginal seats could be important for the get-out-the-vote operation on election day, and also enable a political party to better direct its canvassing operation.

On election day, undecided voters were told that “the election result in your marginal constituency is going to be very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party”.

They were then asked:

“So does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is prime minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?”

At an earlier stage of the campaign, the call centre staff said they were calling from a company called Axe Research, which does not appear to exist. Under the Data Protection Act, callers must disclose who they are and how the data will be used.

Asked what Axe Research was, one supervisor told Channel 4 News: “It’s just the name we do these surveys under, basically. I did a Google search, nothing comes up. But as far as anyone’s concerned, yeah, we’re a legit independent market research company.”

A week before the election, the same call centre staff started saying they were calling on behalf of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

The Conservative party said the call centre was conducting market research on its behalf, and was not canvassing for votes. The call centre confirmed it was employed by the party, but denied canvassing on its behalf.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.”

Evidence obtained by Channel 4 News suggests that on the day of the election, staff called voters in 10 marginal seats, including Bridgend, Gower, Clwyd South and Wrexham.

According to the Representation of the People Act, it is illegal to employ someone “for payment or promise of payment as a canvasser for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election”. …”

Plymouth sets up independently inquiry into voting problems

Owl says: chances of EDDC investigating its postal voting screw-up? Zero!

Plymouth City Council has set up an independent investigation over administrative issues in the lead-up to the general election earlier this month.

The investigation, which has been jointly commissioned with the Electoral Commission, was launched after problems emerged with the sending out of postal vote packs to people who had applied for them.

The Guardian reported that the loss of 1,500 postal voting packs was being blamed on a computer problem.

The council had already apologised after the final number of votes declared for the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency was incorrect. In that instance some 6,587 votes for Efford and Lipson were not included in the final declaration for the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency.

The investigation will be led by Dr Dave Smith, former chief executive of Sunderland City Council. Dr Smith sits on the Elections and Referendum Steering Group. He is also a non-executive board member for the Cabinet Office Electoral Registration Transformation Board and leads on elections and democracy for Solace.

His investigation will cover all issues relating to the election including:
The processes and controls around election planning.
The factors that led to postal voting packs not being received.
The sequence of events and consequences at each stage.
An assessment of the overall numbers of voters affected.
The approach, effectiveness and timeliness of remedial action taken to rectify the issue, once the council became aware of the scale of the problem.
The advice and guidance provided by the Electoral Commission regarding the council’s responsibilities, and their adopted method of resolving the issue.
The staffing and operation of the election call centre leading up to the day of the election, and on polling day itself.
The effectiveness of communications, and the way in which customer enquiries were dealt with.
Evidence of customer interactions including the outcomes and levels of satisfaction.
The general effectiveness of the elections and electoral registration function, including the capacity and capability of the team.
The robustness of systems and processes, with a particular focus on applications for, and distribution of postal votes.
Any other matters that might have influenced the elections process or response to the issues encountered.

Dr Smith will present the findings and recommendations from his investigation to a meeting of the full council “within the next few months”, Plymouth said.

The council has called on anyone who has further information or comments to provide this to the investigation through a portal that has been set up on its website. All information and comments submitted through the portal will go direct to Mr Smith.

See also:

Council Leader Ian Bowyer said: “I am deeply concerned by the problems that have occurred with the administration of the General Election and want to be assured that we urgently get to the bottom of what happened and why. The Chief Executive and Acting Returning Officer announced at an early stage that a full and independent external investigation will be held, which is essential as we must ensure that these problems can never recur.

“I have asked that the investigation makes every effort to hear evidence from as many people in Plymouth as possible who have been affected by the problems. This way the investigators will be able to better understand the problems, how and why they happened and how many people were affected.”
Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough earlier this month called in the Association of Electoral Administrators to conduct an independent review of the Parliamentary election.

The council said this followed “adverse coverage in the media and also social media about the process of the election”.

Criticisms focused on: the issue of postal votes; individuals whose application to join the Electoral Register was awaiting determination; and voters who had been added to the Electoral Register after the issue of poll cards being able to vote in polling stations.”

EDDC and East Devon Alliance cited in Guardian postal vote cock-ups article

… In East Devon postal votes were sent out to voters without an official security mark. The acting returning officer for the East Devon constituency, Mark Williams, issued a statement earlier this week reassuring postal voters that if they had not yet returned their postal votes they should still do so. “We have taken all the necessary steps to ensure the postal votes are valid and will be counted,” William said.

Paul Arnott, chairman of the East Devon Alliance, expressed his dismay at the situation, calling for the new government “to centrally digitise the issuing of ballot papers and remove the potential for fraud in all levels of elections”. …”

EDA could, of course, also have mentioned:

the lost 6,000 voters of 2015:

which led to Electoral Officer EDDC CEO being summoned to Parliament to not-very-satisfactorily explain himself:

AND the other mistakes that took place in 2015:

EDDC Scrutiny Committee – we await your input!

At least one local paper stands up for itself – but not here

“While taking Conservative cash to place the ad, The Blackpool Gazette ran a headline above it which read: Poverty-hit families are forced to rely on food bank handouts. And inside, the paper ran a special report detailing the impact of Conservative austerity on local families [as quoted below]:

Food bank Britain

Britain is hungry. The figures from the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest network of food banks, reveal a staggering rise in emergency food dependency across the country. As shown below, food bank dependency was virtually a non-issue in 2008/9. But the number of emergency food supplies given out now essentially accounts for one in every 60 adults in the UK.”

Even the Cabinet Office cocks up voting! Doesn’t auger well for Brexit legislation!

On Monday this week, just days before general election polling day, the government was forced to table a new set of rules for the general election after numerous errors in a key statutory instrument drawn up by the Cabinet Office came to light.

Both the original faulty and sudden replacement statutory instruments cover the costs Returning Officers can claim from central government for the running of the election in their constituencies. The Parliamentary Elections (Returning Officers’ Charges) (No. 2) Order 2017 replaces the previous legal order from 4 May because of problems with the ‘maximum recoverable amount’ (MRA) which the original legal order set for each constituency, limiting how much can be claimed.

As the Electoral Commission’s latest bulletin to Returning Officers explains, a new legal order has been required because:

This revision is to take account of a number of incorrect MRAs that came to light after Cabinet Office received a few enquiries from Returning Officers about their level of allocation. A full review of all the allocations for England, Scotland and Wales has identified that a mixture of erroneous and inconsistent data on combinations and polling station resource, added to some clerical errors in transposing numbers, has led to a number of the MRAs being incorrect.”

Or in other words, the Cabinet Office drew up a bit of legislation which was so full of errors that it had to be hurriedly replaced.

Hardly a good sign for how the vastly greater and more complicated reams of legislative changes required for Brexit will go.

Claire Wright: the one to watch, the one to vote for

“… Claire, who lives in Ottery St Mary, is currently an Ottery St Mary town councillor and is the Devon County Councillor for the Otter Valley ward. She did represent Ottery St Mary on East Devon District Council from May 2011 to 2015, when she stood down.

She says that she has been a campaigner from the start – her first campaign letter was written when she was just nine when she wrote to the Brazilian Embassy demanding that they stopped killing dolphins for the eyeballs.

She made a foray into public relations and started working for the NHS in 2000. She said: “I set up campaigns on stopping smoking, coughs and sneezes spread diseases (in case pandemic flu arrived in the UK) and while working at Devon County Council in 2007, I established a campaign to improve adults’ perceptions of young people – called ‘Don’t Judge Us Before You Know Us!’.”

She took a step into the world of politics in 2009 when there was ‘the threat’ of a Tesco store coming to Ottery St Mary. It mobilised her to join the Sustainable Ottery’s campaign against it and it was from there that she joined Ottery St Mary Town Council.

As a councillor, she battled to get funding for West Hill’s very first play park and helped to improve the broadband service in the area.

In May 2011, she stood for election to East Devon District Council, and managed to oust long-standing conservative leader of the council, Sara Randall Johnson in the process – her first political giant-killing.

She said: “As an EDDC councillor I focused on two main themes – encouraging more transparency and openness – and trying to save the district from a very real threat of over-development.”

In May 2013, she was elected to Devon County Council where she is a member of the health and wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee, and she retained her seat in May 2017 with a massive majority.

In May 2015, she stood in the parliamentary elections in East Devon, running against foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

She came second with 13,140 votes and a 24 per cent share, polling the most votes of any Independent in the country since 2001, when Independent, Dr Richard Taylor won Wyre Forest.

Now, in 2017, she is standing again, and her ‘people power’ army have hit the streets.

She only stood after she managed to secure an “army” of helpers and a crowdfunding appeal raised over £12,000 in just four weeks: with 75 per cent of donations being in small amounts of £50 or under.

One of Claire’s team said: “Claire stood up to Hugo in 2015, and despite a brilliant campaign got knocked back down. Instead of accepting defeat, she used that experience as a platform from which to fight even harder for the people of East Devon. If you’d asked me when I moved down here in 1995 that my vote could make a difference in this safe rural Tory seat, I would have laughed.”

But now the team are quietly confident that the support they’re feeling on the streets will be translated into a massive vote this Thursday.

“One of my team was stopped in the street by a man waving my manifesto who wanted more information: he will be voting for me. Young people voting for the first time, older people who are worried about the dementia tax, doctors, teachers, mothers with young children, students, the unemployed, a whole range of professions, all are uniting in a shared desire for a passionate, caring, hardworking MP for East Devon.

“A Sidmouth woman marrying an Exmouth man took time out from her wedding day on Saturday to have her photo taken with one of my boards. All her family are voting for me this time’.”

Joshua and Jamie Anderson (aged 21 and 19 respectively) are from Exton on the river Exe. They said: “We would prefer to vote for our own parties, but having read Claire Wright’s manifesto, we are happy to put our preferences aside and vote for her. For too long, the Tories have treated East Devon as a safe seat and Mr Swire has been neglecting us – and getting away with it. Whatever party you belong to, we need to rally now behind Claire Wright, our only hope in East Devon.”

West Hill resident and Claire’s team member Lisa Simpson said: “I’ve been a Labour supporter since I was old enough to vote and never contemplated supporting another party, nor indeed tactical voting, but I was won over, not only by a realistic opportunity to unseat a Conservative MP but by Claire’s integrity and work ethic.”

Claire added: “There are disenchanted Conservatives, angry that their man, Hugo Swire, did not bother to attend hustings, showing their support. The local Green party is backing me all the way.

“But more importantly, people who’ve never voted before, young voters, people who abstained last time, are realising they can be part of a quiet revolution right here in Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. We’re demonstrating a new way of doing politics that responds to local people and seeks consensus rather than confrontation.”

Claire has been endorsed by tactical voting sites Best for Britain and Tactical 2017 and even Booker prize-winning writer Hilary Mantel has endorsed her campaign, saying ‘she is local, energetic and knowledgeable… Claire Wright is the candidate who will speak up for Devon East.'”

Postal vote cock-up entirely EDDC’s fault – postal ballot papers “could have been run off on a home printer”

“Postal votes sent out to voters in East Devon without an official security mark were printed by East Devon District Council, it has been confirmed.

The Acting Returning Officer for the East Devon Constituency, Mark Williams, issued a statement earlier this week to reassure postal voters who have not yet returned their postal votes after the postal votes after packs that were issued on May 25 contained voting slips that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper.

It has now been confirmed that it was East Devon District Council who were responsible for printing the ballot papers.

Latcham Direct Limited, who are is a specialist digital print, direct mail production, print management, document management, and fulfilment operation, have been commissioned by EDDC for services that in their annual reports are for printing and for postage.

A spokesman for Latcham Direct said: “Latcham produced the postal vote statements and enclosed the matching BRE’s into outer envelopes keeping in strict sequential order, and returned back to East Devon.

“East Devon printed the ballot papers and hand enclosed them into the filled packs from Latcham Direct ready for distribution.”

It is believed that this means that it was East Devon District Council who were responsible for the mistake that has been put down to ‘human error’.

East Devon District Council were contacted for comment but a spokesman said that they did not wish to add anything further to the previous comments that they had issued.

A statement issued by Mr Williams had said: “It has come to my attention that the postal vote packs we issued on 25th May contained voting slips that did not have an official security mark visible on the front of the ballot paper. This has affected a total of 9,000 postal voters.

“I want to reassure those postal voters affected that if they have not yet returned their postal votes they should still do so. We have taken all the necessary steps to ensure the postal votes are valid and will be counted. I apologise for the error but want to reassure postal voters that they should still complete their postal voting statements and return their postal voting envelopes back to me for validating as part of the normal postal voting process.

“To be valid, a postal vote has to be accompanied by a valid postal voting statement containing the voters date of birth and signature. After these are checked, the envelope containing the postal voting slip is opened and the slip is put into a sealed ballot box where it is kept safe until the formal count. My postal vote opening teams will ensure that all validly completed postal votes are double checked so that they will go forward to the count along with all the other votes that will be cast on polling day itself.”

But calls have been made for Mr Williams to resign from his post after the ‘unforgiveable mistake’ and the chairman of the East Devon Alliance has said they are appalled that Mark Williams is even in his post to be able to commit this unforgivable mistake after the ‘disaster’ of the 2015 elections, in which Parliamentary, District and Town council elections were all held on the same day.

The Electoral Commission have been informed of the postal voting error.

But the ‘cock-up’ has left Paul Arnott, chairman of the East Devon Alliance, furious, and said that he would have more confidence in a village raffle than in Mr Williams running the forthcoming election.

Mr Arnott said: “The East Devon Alliance is appalled that Mark Williams is even in his post to be able to commit this unforgivable mistake. In 2015, after the debacle of the elections for town, district and Parliament, we wrote a measured report, in which our concerns included his prematurely calling results at his chaotic count for district elections with no reference to candidates or agents even when majorities were easily within the need for a recount.

“As a result we are not confident that two current serving councillors were duly elected. He had no control over who was at the count itself, and we know about the 2015 disaster with the postal vote. All our concerns in 2015 were mirrored by a report from the Elecotral Commission.

“As a result, I was successful this year in demanding that the County Solicitor’s office and the Electoral Commission observed the County election last month. Under this level of scrutiny the conduct of the 2017 county election was unrecognisable from the disgrace of 2015.

“Now we are witnessing the final tragedy for democracy in East Devon because Mr Williams remains in position to make what must be his final mistake.

“How is the electorate meant to trust that he forgot to check before sending out no fewer than 9,000 postal votes that they did not bear any proper markings? It’s his job to check them and to have a commissioning relationship with the printers.

“How did these ballot papers, which frankly any of us could have run off from a home printer, ever get to be created? This must be the last election he ever runs and we will be issuing a report on this and take it to the highest level. The dog has eaten his homework for the last time.

“Meanwhile the only honourable act for Mr Williams himself is to resign from all future electoral activities, including voter registration, his laxity in which was condemned by a committee in Parliament. I never thought I would live to be a 55-year-old citizen of one of the most beautiful parts of the world and be unable to assure my children that they are able to trust the electoral processes here anymore than in some underfunded and unfortunate part of the developing world.”

A spokesman for East Devon District Council said that the mistake was ‘simply the result of human error for which we apologise’.

They added: “A total of 9,000 postal votes were involved but as we have outlined in our statement the issue has been remedied. We want to reassure those postal voters affected that if they have not yet returned their postal votes they should still do so as we have taken all the necessary steps to ensure the postal votes are valid and will be counted.”

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said: “The Electoral Commission is aware of the issue surrounding postal ballot papers in East Devon which were issued without an official mark. We were contacted by the Acting Returning Officer and provided advice, and steps have been taken to ensure that these ballot papers will still be counted and nobody will be disenfranchised in the UK Parliamentary General Election.”