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‘It’s Far More Complicated Now Because of Voter ID’: Unprecedented Challenges Facing the Poll Workers Who Deliver Our Democracy

Matt Gallagher examines elections staffs’ repeated warnings of electoral ‘delivery failure’

Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

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The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) released a post-polls report last June in which the membership body for election officials issued a bleak warning about the “fragility” of the UK electoral system. The 2023 local elections, it said, brought administrators “the biggest challenge in a generation”. 

Long-standing vulnerabilities in the electoral system, compounded by the implementation of new voter ID laws, are posing a growing risk of “delivery failure”.

The AEA expressed concerns that only a “major electoral failure” event would wake the country up to the severe pressure imposed on election staff in Britain today. 

According to its chief executive Peter Stanyon, the warnings and recommendations issued in the report still stand just weeks away from the 2024 General Election.

“There’s nothing new in terms of the challenges being faced,” he said.

The vote on 4 July, expected to see a higher nation-wide turnout than the previous local elections in May 2023 and 2024, will be an even greater “stress-test” of the system.

The short and abrupt time-frame of the election will not help matters, according to Stanyon: “Six months of work have been crammed into six weeks,” he told Byline Times, putting significant pressure on returning officers (ROs, who run the election) and electoral registration officers (EROs, who oversee the data of registrants).

In addition, the drawing of new constituency boundaries at this election, combined with the short time-frame, “will require significant adjustments in a short period, especially for local authority areas with cross-boundaries or those taking on responsibility for additional constituencies”.


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The problems facing administrators are deep-rooted, going back to the byzantine nature of electoral law itself. The Law Commission has repeatedly called to “streamline the rules governing the conduct of elections and challenges to them, removing inefficiencies and saving costs”. It argues that our election system is out of date, overly complicated, porous with loopholes, and confusingly fragmented. 

The Parliamentary and Constitutional Affairs Committee has also argued that “the updating and simplification of electoral law must be seen as a pressing priority for the Government”. The Committee on Standards in Public Life backed up those calls as well.

On top of those complexities, the electoral administration system incurs risks in a few key areas.

One in particular, highlighted by Stanyon, is that imposed by the limited number and limited capacity of electoral suppliers: “The UK’s 650 constituencies rely on just four software systems, and there’s around 12 to 15 ‘main’ printing suppliers across the country.” 

Royal Mail, printing companies, and Electoral Management Systems (EMS) providers all have key delegated responsibilities, and form a bottleneck in the election delivery process. “Commercial sensitivities” can make it difficult for administrators to analyse their “resilience and capacity”. The pressures placed on all of these different suppliers could, according to the AEA, “put elections at risk”, with electoral staff liable for suppliers’ failures.

Royal Mail in particular has come under fire recently for the late delivery of 1,423 postal votes (4.6% of all cast) in Brighton and Hove in this year’s local elections. Those votes went uncounted, and electoral staff were the ones ultimately held responsible.

Registration surges present another challenge. Polling stations have been struggling in recent years with recruitment and retention generally, due a mix of electoral complexity, pay rates, and a reduction in local authority resources overall. 

The 2022 Elections Act made matters worse.

Already struggling to manage the volume of registration applications, EROs now additionally manage identity checks of registrants, administer new online absent vote applications, and contend with applications for the Voter Authority Certificate (the Government’s free voter ID card) as well.

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Especially given a snap general election, funding is often difficult to find to secure additional staff in surge times, placing even heavier burdens on EROs.

According to Stanyon, the new voter ID rules have also exacerbated the challenges faced by polling staff.

“It’s a far more complicated job now because of voter ID”, he told Byline Times. “In addition, there is a risk of longer queues developing at polling stations. Staff can give 10 seconds to each person to check a valid ID, but queries about ID validity create a greater chance of delay.” 

But Stanyon emphasised that “the system does still work, despite new restrictions making it harder and harder to deliver.”

He said staffing will be sufficient to conduct this election, and highlighted the fact that a large part of the country – with the exception of Scotland – has trialled at least one local election with voter ID. 

Nevertheless, he stood behind his organisation’s calls last year for sweeping reform to the UK electoral system. 

Primarily, the AEA wants to see the establishment of an independent government inquiry into election administration, “over a period not constrained by parliamentary timescales”. Such an inquiry would make recommendations that supersede political parties’ “conflicting political perspectives”. 

Linked to that, it calls for an extensive “Electoral Administration Act”, which would modernise the core processes of our elections and acknowledge the realistic needs of electoral administrators in one fell swoop. 

It also, notably, endorsed the idea of setting up “larger voting hubs” – allowing voters to cast their ballots in various locations around their constituency, with polling stations tailored to meet local needs. In addition, the AEA has re-emphasised calls to expand the electoral timetable, giving administrators and suppliers more time to absorb shocks and conduct the election effectively. 

The AEA’s recommendations can be read here

“Achieving these reforms is potentially not possible to do in one Parliament,” Stanyon said, adding that “cross-party recognition of these pressures would almost certainly be needed.”


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Despite repeated warnings from the AEA, no political party seems to be entertaining – or even discussing – the rising challenges facing the workers responsible for the very functioning of our democratic system. 

Mark Kieran, CEO of democracy campaign group Open Britain, said: “Electoral administrators play a crucial role in delivering democracy, and they’ve been hung out to dry. Successive governments have neglected their concerns at every step.

“It’s essential that – as with so many other elements of UK democracy today – we take a step back and ask why we continue to rely on a broken system that risks chaos, instead of making the obvious changes that legal experts have been recommending for years.”

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, added: “It is a dereliction of duty for any government to disregard the views of those who administer our elections, particularly when they flag the risk of major problems at the next General Election. 

“With that election now days away, and no Government action taken on the AEA’s concerns, we can only cross our fingers and hope that none of those risks become a reality.”

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