December election highlighted how system is ‘not entirely fit for purpose’, claim experts

PUBLISHED: 09:28 05 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:28 05 February 2020

Lights on a Christmas tree next to a polling station in Laggan in the Cairngorms. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA.

Lights on a Christmas tree next to a polling station in Laggan in the Cairngorms. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

An analysis of the conduct of December’s snap general election has demonstrated that the electoral system ‘must change to deliver the service voters expect and deserve’.

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The Association of Electoral Administrators said that holding the poll two weeks before Christmas created confusion for voters and intensified pressure on stretched election teams.

It has called for urgent action from the government "to ensure the continued delivery of safe and secure elections".

The AEA said 2019 had shown that the electoral system was "not entirely fit for purpose and and the already highlighted cracks are widening even more".

And it warned: "We are aware that many electoral services staff are questioning remaining in the profession because of the pressures they have recently faced."

The statement said a year of unexpected polls left some councils unable consistently to meet electors' expectations.

A short general election timetable clashed with the annual voter registration canvass of every household in Britain, causing problems including:

- Some people mistakenly assuming they were registered to vote when they still needed to complete and return registration forms sent to them.

- Deadlines for voter registration and postal vote applications falling on the same day but at different times. Anyone who applied for a postal vote by the 5pm deadline on November 26, but did not register to vote until after 5pm, could not vote by post.

- High levels of online registration applications made by electors who were already registered to vote, creating unnecessary work for administrators.

- A significant increase in inquiries from EU nationals assuming they could vote on December 12 when only people from Cyprus, Malta and the Republic of Ireland living in the UK were eligible to take part in a UK parliamentary general election.

The AEA is also warning of knock-on effects from the general election for scheduled local elections on May 7, the day before the VE Day bank holiday.

Peter Stanyon, AEA chief executive, said of the December poll: "This highly scrutinised last-minute election was, overall, delivered successfully and professionally.

"However, it is clearer than ever that our electoral system must change to deliver the service voters expect and deserve. Any legislative shifts must also reduce the bureaucratic burden on electoral administrators, who are already stretched to breaking point."

Robert Curtis, AEA chairman, said electoral administrators who delivered the general election "should be applauded given the constraints of the current system and the short timetable they were set".

He insisted: "Lessons must be learned. We continue to call for reform, working closely with government, the Electoral Commission and the wider electoral community to make it happen."

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