Behind the Scenes: 2019 General Election
During this election, I hope to write a weekly blog or update to show what happens behind the scenes of a local authority.
I will say this is just the authority I work for, each and every Electoral Services team will have individual pressures, concerns and different problems. I do not want to state we all face the same issues and this blog will not cover them all.
Before joining an Electoral Services team, I presumed elections just happened. You turn up at your polling station one day a year, get your ballot paper, put in the box and leave. Not once did I realise the amount of work, the hours and the stress that elections cause. Especially if we have an unscheduled national election, or two unscheduled elections in 6 months.
What frustrates me and many other electoral administrators is the idea, that elections can just happen. Teams can just deliver an election with a few weeks notice and that the public just expect that to happen. Unlike other major projects, we can’t request an extension, we can’t just say it’s not do-able, they have to be delivered.
Week One: 30th October to 6th November
Like most electoral administrators, we watched the House of Commons pass legislation to hold an early parliamentary general election on December 12th. Finally, after months and weeks of speculation, we could begin to prepare. We already had some plans in place, but without a date, there isn’t much we can do to prepare.
Wednesday morning (30th November) was met with an enormous amount of emails, phone calls and online applications from the previous day. You could see the correlation of the moment the House passed the Bill with an upsurge of online applications to register to vote. The government also announced as part of the motion that the bank holiday in Scotland would not count as a dias non in registration and application deadlines. This meant we had to first wait for clarification as to what the timetable was before we could publish it and advise electors on when those deadlines were.
The immediate task is to book the polling stations, we rang all 93 that we cover and got a confirmation of all but 1 by the weekend. I visited two potential stations in the district as our usual stations were unavailable. This meant valuable time out of the office! Luckily the final one confirmed on Monday 4th Nov meaning we could go ahead and start to build the election on our software. This is the physical creation of the election such as what type it is, how many seats are there, who is eligible to vote, which people are in which constituency.
The next task was to publish the new 2020 Register. At this time of the year, Election teams are carrying out their annual canvass of electors with a view of publishing a new register on December 1st. We had to cut our canvass a month short and publish on November 1st. This meant we could get data to the poll card printers so they could be printed and sent off!
All the while we have hundreds of postal and proxy vote applications to process, applications to register to vote to sort, letters to send, phone calls answered and election staff to contact and all other arrangements to make.
It’s been a crazy first week!
Week 2: 7th to 13th November
Thursday morning saw the delivery of the Writ of the Election. This is a fantastic and exciting moment as Returning Officers receive official notification of the election in their constituency or constituencies. The writ is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery on behalf of the Queen to formally request an election is held for a Member of Parliament. It gets delivered in a blue envelope and is collected on the day after the election. The Returning Officer will write the name of the elected member on the back of the writ so it can be given back to officials in the House of Commons.
The delivery of the writ meant that the following day, we could publish the notice of election. This is official notification from the local authority and the Returning Officer of the election. It also gives other information around the delivery of nomination papers and other deadlines.
The next working day after publishing the notice of election, the Returning Officer is able to start receiving nominations from candidates. For a general election, candidates and agents are able to deliver papers and it is only a very short window. For our authority, nominations were taken by the Deputy Returning Officer only and in pre-arranged appointments in a private office.
Aside from this, teams will still be inundated with calls, emails and enquiries about the election. We were able to get our Poll Cards sent out this week which means it will generate even more inquiries about the election. We are getting hundreds of applications to register to vote daily and hundreds of postal and proxy applications which means we had to recruit extra help to process them.
Meanwhile, all of our polling station staff have been appointed and contacted with their offers. But work will continue to allocate staff for postal votes, the count and those who drop out of their positions.
Like many teams, the exhaustion has started to set in. Many electoral teams probably haven’t recovered from having to run local elections and then European elections 3 weeks later at very short notice. With this period also normally being the canvass, there hasn’t been time to stop, rest and recover before being thrown into a general election.
What has been telling this week, is the vast lack of knowledge the general public have around elections. One reason for writing this blog is the hope someone can learn a little bit more. Many people just can’t understand that in a snap election, things will be delayed. Poll cards are sent a little later than we would have liked too because we have to confirm stations first. We can’t send you out a postal vote right now, because we haven’t closed nominations for candidates yet. And no, you can’t vote online or email your postal vote back to us!
Next Week – The close of nominations and the publication of the Statement of Persons Nominated.
Week 3: 14th to 20th November
The end of Thursday meant that nominations are closed and authorities can publish the Statement of Persons Nominated, showing who is standing in their constituency or constituencies.
For local authorities, it means that ballot papers can be proof-read and ordered! While for people interested in elections, it means hours of looking through who is standing (or not standing) in different seats. Websites such as Democracy Club do a brilliant job of quickly gathering all of this information, 650 seats across hundreds of local authorities, and displaying on their website. We also send them information about polling stations so they can update their polling station finder. If you haven’t looked at their website, I would recommend it.
In the meantime, the preparation continues to get everything ready. We have to check we have all the equipment we need such as signs and notices, tactile voting devices and ordering extras if we’re short. We’ve made some preparations in case the weather is against us on the day by ordering extra lights and heaters for the coldest of our stations up on the moors. I wouldn’t like to be in a village hall with a slate floor on a cold day in December.
Like all authorities, we are swamped by applications of all sorts. Applications to register to vote, postal vote and proxy applications. We have had hundreds and hundreds postal vote applications in the past couple of weeks, we have had to find extra space to store them. We will probably have to work extra hours for the end of this week and over the weekend just to process all of the applications in time for the deadline on Tuesday.
What is encouraging is that after the first TV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, there was a spike in people registering to vote, so at least people are taking an interest and wanting to at least register!
A lot of my time with absent vote applications is chasing people up who have submitted a postal or proxy application but aren’t actually registered to vote, so we can’t grant it just yet! Also, as people appointed to be a proxy need to be registered to vote, if they live outside your authority, you need to contact another authority to get this information. Luckily all electoral services teams I’ve contacted have been quick to reply and most include the message of ‘Hope you are coping’!
We have now written out to and made initial appointments for all of our positions for casual election staff. These are postal vote issuers, postal vote openers, polling station staff and count staff. It’s been encouraging the number of people who want to help and offer their services for the day, so much so that we’ve stopped taking any extra help because we’re over subscribed on our reserve list! We use an online portal for correspond with 85% of our staff. We send them any job offers or letters via this portal so staff can look at their offers and letters and instantly respond to them. It’s a fast way of getting information out to staff and staff telling us if they are available. We do have some that still want letters sent, but that’s reasonable as not everyone is confident online.
This week is somewhat the ‘week off’ or ‘quiet week’ before next week hits!
Next week – deadline to register to vote and to apply for a postal vote and the postal vote issue!
Week 4: 21st – 27th November
During this week we continued to get many people registering to vote and applying for postal and proxy votes as the deadlines loom.
Many people are unable to find out if they are already registered to vote without contacting their local authority or getting a credit check. As a result, many do not get into contact and register to vote, assuming they are not registered because they don’t know otherwise. What it means for local authorities is that hundreds of people daily register unnecessarily and add to the workload of electoral services teams. Electoral services teams have to check that any duplicates are genuine duplicates and not new registrations so they can be filtered. We do have help from our software to do this but it is worth checking so that for example, Joe Bloggs Snr. and Joe Bloggs Jnr. who both register under the name Joe Bloggs aren’t merged as one elector.
It may not sound a lot, but everyone registered must receive confirmation back either to say if they have been successful or not or to say they are already registered. If people are already registered, we still must tell them and we can either email them or send a letter to them. It still means we have to physically send an email (which isn’t too bad) or send a letter, depending on how the person would like to be contacted. It can mean we have to send hundreds of letters out to people who didn’t need to register when our time could be spent doing more important things.
Over 1 million people registered to vote in the final two days of registration and looking at the figures from our own authority and from a couple of others, at least half of these were people already registered. What’s clear is that the Cabinet Office or Central Government must come up with a way for people to find out if they are already registered. They have some facilities to do this, such as the Government Gateway system, so I can’t see how it couldn’t happen in the future.
The other big deadline was the close of postal vote applications. It was also the deadline to change or cancel existing absent votes, which includes both postal and proxies. Having the deadlines on the same day presented a difficult challenge to electoral teams. For example, if someone applies for a postal vote by 5pm but registered on the deadline day (Tuesday), we might not have been able to see their application until this morning (Wednesday) so we can match them together and allow their postal vote. It was a frantic day of contacting people who may have applied for a postal vote but aren’t actually registered to vote or contacting people who have submitted a postal vote application but haven’t completed it correctly. You’d be surprised how many people don’t sign their form or put 2019 as their year of birth.
Once the deadline closes, it means all applications need to processed. Obviously, we’ve been doing them as and when we’ve received them but all applications received on deadline day need to be processed on the day. Wednesday meant we issued the postal votes for our constituency. We had a team of 34 issuers to issue the 13,500 postal votes for our constituency. Luckily for us, this is around 5,000 less than normal because we give 1/3 of our electorate away to a neighbouring authority, who administer the other constituency covering our district. We managed to get all postal votes issued on one day and all but 1000 or so posted, this was due to a 4pm pick up from Royal Mail and teams finished issuing the rest around 5pm. We prioritised overseas postal votes and ensured they were sent first to give them as much time as possible to get to their destinations.
Next week – Proxy vote deadline, postal votes returning back to us and preparing the ballot boxes.
Week 5: 28th November – 4th December
Today marked the close of proxy applications, people who are appointed on behalf of other people to vote for them. These are all processed so that we can then write out to the proxies to confirm their appointment and where they need to go to vote.
This week we have also been filling up the ballot boxes with all the things they and electors need. This means all of the legal notices and signs need to be printed and laminated, all of the packets created, sundries packs and stationary ordered and ballot boxes labelled. We book out our public gallery above the council chamber and lay the ballot boxes out in order so they can be filled. We include large printed copies of the ballot paper to be displayed at the station and a tactile voting device so that we can make voting as accessible as possible. The most important parts: the ballot papers and registers are put in the ballot boxes last.
We started this week to sort and process the returned postal votes. Boxes and boxes were returned for our postal vote open staff to open and sort. We must check the correct postal vote statement, A envelope and ballot paper are returned to us. We also verify the postal vote statement and the elector’s personal identifiers (date of birth and signature) compared to their application for a postal vote. If it matches, we can accept the ballot paper and it will be included in the count. If the personal identifiers are not verified, such as the date of birth is clearly wrong or the signature differs, then the postal vote is unfortunately rejected. We do get many electors who send in one part of their postal vote, such as their statement but not their ballot paper or their ballot paper but not their statement. For these, we keep them, record it and put them to one side in the hope the other part will be sent in and we can match them together and include the paper in the count.
From today, until polling day, we will have a small, dedicated team to open the postal votes that are sent back to us. This also includes a small team on the night to sort those which are handed in at polling stations. Remember, if you leave it late to post back to the Acting Returning Officer, you can drop it to any polling station in the correct constituency.
We’ve also had a couple of spoilt ballot papers to re-issue, which meant I had to re-learn how to re-issue them and print out all of the different bits they need! We can re-issue spoilt papers if we receive the old, spoilt ones back to us. We cannot re-issue lost papers until Friday 6th December as we have to give them a chance to get delivered before re-sending them.
Next Week – The end is in sight – Postal Vote openings continue, final notice of alteration, briefing sessions and final preparations.
Week 6: 5th December onwards
As we enter the final week and as the deadlines have closed, the immediate pressure slightly relaxes in terms of electoral registration and moves towards polling day and the count and ensuring we are ready.
Postal votes continue to arrive with us and the process of opening them and counting the valid ballot papers continue. We also set up a mini postal vote opening at the count to validate those who get delivered to polling stations. Overall, we had an 85% return rate of our postal votes!
After the proxy vote deadline, we published the final notice of alteration. This is the final list of registered voters, postal and proxy voters which is printed out and used by staff on the day to check if voters are eligible to vote.
Our ballot boxes are prepared with everything the Presiding Officers and Poll Clerks need for the day. These staff come in for a training/briefing session on the days before polling day to give them an overview of the day, what to expect and what to look out for. Presiding Officers also collect their ballot box and check it’s content. As it was a general election, we were given instructions to ensure the security of the poll was not put at risk.
Phone calls and emails continue as people check if they are registered to vote, ask where they are voting or find out they aren’t registered to vote and have left it too late to change it to vote. We always have a couple of odd queries and have to root back through paper forms to work out what’s happened, like one couple who handed back their paper registration forms after the deadline despite saying they were handed in on time.
On Wednesday we had a staff briefing of core election staff. Led by the Electoral Services Manager, we were briefed on the count to ensure everyone knew what they were doing.
Polling Day: 12th December
Thursday arrives and we prepare for a long day. The office opens from 6:30am to deal with any staff who have immediate problems. I arrived at 7am and was immediately met with issues in a couple of stations such as a flooding problem outside a mobile station and arranging more voting booths to a station as they were overwhelmed with voters.
As the day goes on, Presiding Officers called in with queries, asking if people were registered or checking where people should go.
One peculiar issue was electors coming into a station with a poll card, but a poll card from the May local elections or European elections. I’m not sure why people have kept their poll cards for so long, but it was confusing for our staff who tried to find electors on the register based from their poll card number. As we published a new register in November, all electors were renumbered, so the numbers were completely different.
Our biggest problem came with a couple of Extinction Rebellion protesters outside one of our polling stations and resulted in the police having to be called to check it.
As always, tellers raised issues with voters as voters were uneasy giving their elector numbers to them and phoned us to check what tellers were able to do. We state the do’s and don’ts of what tellers can and can’t do and explain what they are collecting numbers for.
Postal voters who were yet to receive ballot papers were able to come and get a re-issue of their postal vote. Our last one was a woman who drove across the constituency at 4:45 to get a replacement and arrived with seconds to spare before 5pm and was able to get a replacement postal vote pack.
Meanwhile, all of the equipment is delivered to the count centre and a team of people are there to set it up. For a general election, we hold it at a local leisure centre and use the sports hall as the count venue. All of the tables, chairs, stationary, computer equipment and refreshments are delivered. The stage is set up and the postal ballot papers and securely delivered and locked away. The media room is set up, the postal vote room is set up and the ballot box reception is set up.
The Count: 12th-13th December
As 10pm draws closer, staff arrive to get their seats at a table. The count table leaders arrive to do some final preparation and brief their teams. We start with the verification of the ballot papers – ensuring we have the correct number of ballot papers they were issued. We do not count the votes at this point, only the number of ballot papers
The postal votes are the first to be verified while we wait for Presiding Officers to arrive at the count centre. All of our presiding officers arrived before 11pm and the ballot box reception team ensure all of the paperwork is received back, postal votes are delivered to the postal vote room and the ballot box is brought into the sports hall.
Once all the ballot papers were verified, there was a short break before the count began.
We ran a mini count system, so the 6 table groups verified and kept their ballot papers with them. They then counted those same ballot papers and hopefully their figures added back up to their verified figure. For example, table 1 verified 9000 ballot papers and then counts 6000 votes for Candidate 1, 3000 for candidate 2 and 1500 each for candidate 3 and 4, counting back to the 9000. As the count progresses, we gave candidates and agents a visual representation of their numbers building by laying votes for candidates out in individual trays and marking every 1000 votes. It means the final result is not a surprise to anyone in the room and is less likely to be re-counted, unless of course it was close.
We declared around 2:40am and the incumbent MP as re-elected with a slightly bigger majority of a couple hundred votes. We were still the first in our county to declare which is an achievement for us we wanted to keep, and we learnt we could probably do it even faster next time!
Once the speeches and media work is done, the count centre is packed up and everyone can go home! Although it just meant I could go home and watch the other results come in on TV.
After the Election
We were back in work on Friday as the Writ of the election needed to be picked up with the newly elected MP’s name written on it and delivered back to Parliament.
Deposits need to be re-paid or for those who lost their deposit, sent to the Cabinet Office.
Next all of the village halls, staff, contractors, removal companies, etc. need to be paid for their work. The final accounts of the election need to be complied and sent to the Election Claims Unit within the Cabinet Office so we can be reimbursed for our spending.
Everything we took to the count needs to be sorted and put back in its cupboards, the election material needs to be locked away for a year in our stores.
Some of the electors that may have had an issue on polling day will contact us to ensure they can vote in the next election. And those with rejected postal votes need to be written out to so they are made aware of their rejected paper.
And then we can have some time off for Christmas!
The work will then start on the election we have in the New Year: We have a by-election in February, a couple of neighbourhood planning referendums and the Police and Crime Commissioner election in May.