Page last updated at 14:33 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 15:33 UK

Queuing voters 'let down', says election night report

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More than 1,200 people left queuing on election night when polling stations closed were "badly let down", an interim report has found.

The Electoral Commission said the law should be changed so anyone queuing when polls close could still vote.

It said voters had "every right to be angry" and those running elections must make sure it "never happens again".

The report found too many voters were allocated to some polling stations, while others had too few staff.

The Electoral Commission said at least 1,200 people were still in queues at 27 stations in 16 constituencies, when polls closed at 10pm on election night. None of the elections will be re-run.

It said: "These problems were not widespread but some voters were badly let down on 6 May. Everyone involved in running elections must make sure that it never happens again."

'Inadequate' arrangements

The commission's interim report examined reported problems in Birmingham, Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Liverpool, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Newcastle, Runnymede and Elmbridge and Sheffield.

A fuller report - which will also look at other problems including mistakes on polling cards and ballot papers - will be published in July.

The numbers affected are based on estimates from returning officers, not all of whom had yet provided the commission with an estimate. It also does not take into account people who were put off voting altogether by long queues.

Some returning officers blamed an unexpectedly high turnout and a late surge in voting.

But the commission, which provides advice and guidance to those running elections, said some "failed to follow our guidance and their performance fell short of the expected standard".

It said some polling stations had too many voters allocated to them, others had too few staff or used "unsuitable" buildings.

And in some areas, where council or mayoral elections were taking place, there were "inadequate" arrangements to deal with the fact that people took longer to cast their votes.

People in these areas were badly let down and have every right to be angry
Jenny Watson
Electoral Commission

It added: "Election officials did not identify and respond quickly enough to the problems that emerged on polling day."

The commission pointed out that returning officers were not allowed, under the law, to let people vote after 10pm and recommended the law be changed to allow them to do so.

The report examined what happened in various constituencies. Among its findings were:

  • At the St Paul's Church polling station in the Birmingham Ladywood constituency, the presiding officer asked staff to confirm the time and chose the watch that was five minutes' slow and issued ballot papers until it reached 10pm. Police were eventually called to disperse the crowd.
  • In the Ann Taylor Centre in Hackney, annoyed voters staged a sit-in protest. About 100 students staged a protest at St John's Ranmoor polling station in Sheffield.
  • At 9pm in Lewisham police advised the acting returning officer there was a "real danger of a flashpoint" because of growing queues and that a "public order problem might occur". Police supervised the queue inside the polling station.
  • In Manchester, it is thought 200 people were unable to vote at the Ladybarn Community Centre and 100 at Didsbury United Reformed Church.
  • At Wolverton in Milton Keynes there were "concerns about the safety of staff" when 100 people were still queuing at 10pm. The returning officer went outside to stop the queue but allowed anyone ahead of him to vote.
  • In Newcastle-under-Lyme, staff at the St Chad's Church polling station decided to allow those that arrived before 10pm to vote - despite an 80-strong queue at closing time.

The report also said local authorities and returning officers should review their schemes for polling districts and the whole structure for running elections should be reformed.

'Wake-up call'

Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watson said: "Returning officers in the areas affected did not properly plan for, or react to, polling day problems. That is unacceptable. People in these areas were badly let down and have every right to be angry."

She said the system was "too fragmented" and needed "better co-ordination and accountability, building on existing regional models".

Sir Howard Bernstein, acting returning officer for Manchester, apologised to those unable to vote and said although contingency measures had worked well at most polling stations - in two they were notified of queues "too late for these contingency measures to kick in".

He welcomed the proposal to change the law to allow ballot papers to be issued after 10pm "in exceptional circumstances".

Peter Facey, director of campaign group Unlock Democracy said high turnout of voters was no excuse as: "Not only did this election see the third lowest turnout since 1945, but it is a returning officer's duty to ensure that everyone who has the right to vote can do so."

He said: "These debacles could have been a lot worse and should serve as a wake-up call to electoral administrators everywhere."

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