East Devon Returning Officer welcomes Electoral Commission comments and confirms improvements to service

The Electoral Commission has today (15 July) published its review of the multiple elections that took place on 7 May 2015  - an unusual occurrence,  where for the first time since 1979 the General Election, District, Town and Parish Council elections all took place on the same day. To put this into context, in East Devon, election notices were published for a total of 119 elections covering four local authority boundaries (East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon and West Devon).

The report - which includes the elections watchdog’s assessment of the performance of Returning Officers  - highlights the many administrative issues that arose across the country, ranging from ballot papers issued in error to printing mistakes. But it also confirms that: ‘…the complexity of the polls was a contributing factor: errors were predominantly made in areas where more than one election was taking place…such complexity must be considered as an increased risk factor in the planning and delivery of the election(s).’ 

The Electoral Commission’s report found that:
• ‘Nine in ten people surveyed (91%) said the elections in May were well-run.’
• ‘Nearly all (94%) of those who voted in person at a polling station were satisfied with the process.’
• ‘Nearly all (97%) of those who voted by post were satisfied with voting this way. Just over 16% of electors chose to vote by post at the General Election, at the 2010 General Election, the figure was 15%.’

A lack of experienced staff was another problem that affected administration  efficiency: ‘As most ROs rely on a small dedicated team of staff to organise elections, they rarely have additional experienced staff available to augment the core team to support the management of combined polls or where there are complex cross-boundary issues to resolve.’

East Devon’s Returning Officer (RO), Mark Williams, is referenced in the report due to his failure to meet two of the Electoral Commission performance standards, as a result of two administrative errors, which may have had a detrimental impact on voters and those standing for election. These were:

1. Incorrect guidance on the back of the postal voting statement that potentially affected a number of postal voters in the district elections.

In response to this comment, Mark Williams said:

Fortunately this matter was identified very speedily and prompt corrective action was taken. I fully accept that the error shouldn't have happened and I apologised at the time. Even though we issued in excess of 11,000 postal votes, only 14 postal votes needed to be re-issued as a result of the error. It was clear that postal voters used their common sense and followed the instructions on the ballot paper rather than the general guidance on the back of the postal voting statement.

I know that comment has been made about the cost of the mail-out to those potentially affected by the mistake, but I can assure Council Tax payers that they have not been affected by this, as the cost was covered by ring fenced grants, which we received from HM Government.

2. The second issue related to a temporary 24-hour arrangement that applied to district council postal votes as a result of concerns raised by a registered political party.

Commenting on this issue, Mark Williams said:

All ROs come under intense pressure during an election period and the Electoral Commission’s report is a timely reminder that we must comply with guidance and legislation despite the pressure of an election. In the case of this matter, it affected 12 postal votes for the district council, all of which were actually included in the count.

Conclusion
Overall, Mark Williams feels that the 2015 elections were an intense, but successful experience, although he is at pains to point out that he and his team will be redoubling their efforts to ensure that the lessons learnt from these multiple elections are not repeated in the future.

I have a young team who did their very best to provide an excellent service to electors. I acknowledge that we fell short - as highlighted by the Electoral Commission - but when put in context, all 110,000 electors had the opportunity to cast their vote and the election results were robust and not challenged.

We will be working with the Electoral Commission to identify and implement practical measures that will improve the voting process. Developing the resources of the elections and electoral registration teams is a key immediate priority and we are looking to recruit an additional officer for these services, who will be fully trained in the use of the specialist software that is used for electoral registration and elections. It is important that the high levels of trust that voters place in us are sustained.

Scrutiny
A report on the issues that arose from the combined Parliamentary, District and Town & Parish Council elections will be presented to the Scrutiny Committee by the Returning Officer Mark Williams on 30 July 2015.