BBC News: Election 2010 BBC News

Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Friday, 7 May 2010 19:06 UK

Election 2010: Inquiry as voters miss out as polls shut


Police were called to some polling stations to deal with the crowds

The chaos which led to hundreds of voters being turned away from polling stations will "never happen again", the Electoral Commission's head has said.

Jenny Watson promised a "thorough review" after some voters said they were "fuming" at being denied a vote.

Police had to deal with queues as the voting deadline passed in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, parts of London and Surrey.

One Sheffield official said the highest turnout for 30 years "caught us out".

The main parties all expressed concerns, although there have not been any reports of results being challenged.

'Extremely serious'

Ms Watson said the problems experienced in a number of constituencies were "clearly not acceptable".

"It's extremely serious and we're going to have an inquiry into it and find out what happened," she said.

Ms Watson blamed Britain's "Victorian" voting system, which she said was at "breaking point".

She added that there may need to be a change in the law.

Legally, polling station doors must close at 2200 BST and no ballot papers are issued after that time, although everyone who has a ballot paper by then must be able to vote.

Among the incidents:

• Police were called to a polling station in Lewisham, south London, where about 300 people had still to vote by 2200 BST.

• In Hackney, London, angry would-be voters staged a sit-in when polls closed.

• In his Sheffield Hallam constituency, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg went to offer his apologies to frustrated voters at a polling station in Ranmoor after they queued for more than three hours.

• Doors were closed on 200 potential voters in Ladybarn in Withington, Manchester.

• In Liverpool, voters were left waiting when one polling station ran out of ballot papers.

• Voters were turned away amid long queues in St Paul's Church in Birmingham, and long queues were reported in Mere Green polling station in Sutton Coldfield.

• There were reports of voters being turned away after long queues in Weybridge, Surrey.

• Long queues were reported at two polling stations in Newcastle.

A spokesman for Gordon Brown said the prime minister was "very concerned" about the reports of people being turned away from polling stations and "would support a thorough investigation into them".

It is an outrage in a civilised country like ours that this can happen, especially to people who are trying to vote after doing a day's work

Conservative Party leader David Cameron thanked officials in his Witney constituency for a well-run election day, but said that had not been the case in some parts of the country.

"An early task for a new government is to get to the bottom of what has happened and make sure that it never happens again," he said.

Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who went to speak to voters who had been waiting in long queues at a polling station in his Sheffield constituency, said he shared the "bitter dismay" of those who were unable to vote.

"That should never, ever happen again in our democracy," he said.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said: "What a tragedy that, after a campaign which engaged and energised many who were previously cynical about politics, tonight's story may be being over-shadowed by the extraordinary revelation that Britain cannot competently run the most basic part of the democratic process."

'Fuming' voters

Many voters contacted the BBC to say they had been denied the chance to vote because the polls closed while they were still queuing.

Jenny Watson, Electoral Commission: "The law on voting is extremely clear"

Jo-Ann Stranger, who failed to vote in Hackney South and Shoreditch, said it was an "outrage".

"I, along with about 100 other people, were turned away from our local polling station, having waited 45 minutes to vote.

"The officers closed the door on the queue at 9.50pm, refusing entry to anyone standing outside," she said.

"It is an outrage in a civilised country like ours that this can happen, especially to people who are trying to vote after doing a day's work.

Areas affected by long queues

"Whether it will affect the vote, I don't know, but the election cannot stand, given the number of voters potentially unable to vote this evening."

Kathy Murray, from Withington, Manchester, said: "I'm fuming. I queued for over an hour and had the doors shut on me, along with about 250 others, at 10pm.

"We initially went at 6pm, but it was too busy so we went back an hour later, but there were still big queues.

"We went back at 9pm but after waiting for an hour, we still couldn't vote."

'Got wrong'

In Sheffield, returning officer John Mothersole apologised to voters who were turned away, saying: "We got this wrong."

He said the turnout had been "phenomenal... probably the highest turnout in 30 years".

Deputy returning officer Lee Adams said about 200 people were turned away at Ranmoor and police dealt with a crowd of approximately 100 angry would-be voters.

She apologised and admitted staff struggled to cope, adding: "We increased the staffing at about 4pm when the staff told us they needed help.

These people have a right to sue - they will get at least £750 in my view
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC

"Unfortunately, the combination of the numbers turning up and the fact that many were students and didn't have their polling cards just meant it took longer to process."

But one presiding officer, Nick Baldev, laid some of the blame on voters, telling the BBC: "Many did not have their polling cards, which significantly adds time. Some people went to the wrong polling station.

"And... the absolute laziness from the elector by not joining queues when they arrive, returning at a later time only to find a longer line and re-returning at 2200 BST, which, as it clearly states, is closing time."

However, there was good news for some voters stuck in queues as the deadline approached.

At one polling station in Lewisham, south-east London, polling cards were handed out to people queuing, while at two stations in Newcastle those in the queue were ushered into the building before the doors were shut at 2200.

'Separate queue'

The Electoral Commission said each returning officer decided the number of polling stations in their constituency and the number of electors allocated to each station.

"There should have been sufficient resources allocated to ensure that everyone who wished to vote was able to do so," a statement said.

It added that anyone affected should e-mail them at as soon as possible, and that it aimed to publish an interim report by the end of next week. Its full report is due to be published in July.

At the Ranmoor polling station in Mr Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency, many students were unable to vote because they were put in a separate, slower queue to other members of the public, the National Union of Students (NUS) has claimed.

The NUS said the queue containing non-students was "fast-tracked".

"What message does this send to first time voters whose votes will not be counted?" said NUS national president Wes Streeting.

Legal challenge

Anyone wishing to contest the result in their constituency because of people not being able to vote needs to apply to the Election Petitions Office.

John Mothersole said the council was "caught out" by high turnouts

The legal application costs £5,000 and the case would ultimately be heard by two High Court judges, who could rule that another election must take place.

If they rule in your favour, you would get the £5,000 back, if not, then you would lose the money.

Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC has also said that people denied the right to vote could sue for compensation.

"These people have a right to sue," he said.

"They will get at least £750 in my view. Under the European Convention you have a right to vote.

"They were terribly disappointed, they should all sue and get money from the election commission, which seems to have incompetently overseen it."

Civil liberties group Liberty is asking anyone who was not able to cast their vote to contact its organisation.

"Liberty will use all legal and campaigning means to ensure that this disgrace is never repeated," said director Shami Chakrabarti.

"This is particularly pressing given the possibility of further elections in the medium term."

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