England & Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Election staff need more resources and our support

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Image: Ceri Breeze via istock

There we have it, another election delivered. Another year where elections staff – through extraordinary perseverance and dedication – have managed to work against a system that is increasingly unfit for purpose, and deliver a successful election. To any administrators reading this – thank you.

What it takes to run an election is not widely understood, and the 2024 General Election brought with it some new challenges.

Reports of delays to the postal voting system shone a light on a system that typically operates in obscurity. Professionalism and diligence keep the pressures that are on elections staff away from public view, upholding voters’ faith in the system amid changing voting habits.

Scratch the surface and you reveal a huge expansion in the pressure on electoral administrators. For one, the number of people applying for postal votes in recent years has exploded – the AEA had said they expected over 10 million postal votes this year compared to 8.2 million in 2019, up from under 1 million in 1997. This means that almost a quarter of electors will be voting by post this year.

Turnout tends to be higher for postal voters than those who vote at polling stations. This means that 21.0% of all valid votes at the 2019 General Election were postal votes. Before postal voting rules were changed in 2001, this was around 2%.

Online absent vote applications were introduced less than a year ago combined with changes to who is and isn’t allowed to hand in ballot papers. All of this will have added to the pressure postal voting puts on administrators.

There has also been an expansion of the number of people who can vote from around the world. Brits living abroad for more than 15 years are now able to vote in general elections, adding around two million more eligible voters.

This was also the first time that people needed to have photo ID to vote in a General Election. Voter ID is still a novelty for many voters – especially in Scotland where it has never been used in a Scotland-wide election.

Not only do electoral administrators need to enforce the rules to a public often disengaged from political processes, they also administer the Voter Authority Certificate scheme that provides the necessary ID for those without.

Finally, organising a snap election is always difficult: 93% of elections staff in our 2023 survey said it was a problem. A task that ordinarily takes months to arrange must be completed within weeks, which is particularly difficult during a traditional holiday period.

The short election timetables are made even more challenging when nobody knows an election is coming, it is impossible to put in the groundwork when the date could be set at any moment. With only a few weeks to go, venues are booked and staff already committed elsewhere.

In spite of all of that, electoral administrators rose to the challenge and voters are unaware of the herculean efforts that go into putting their democratic tick in the box. The vast majority of electors will have no problem with any part of the voting process.

But the efforts of the individuals can’t and shouldn’t be expected to continually triumph over a system that has been creaking for years.

Part of what makes this frustrating is that electoral administrators have provided suggestions for improving these points of friction for years.

The AEA’s blueprint for a modern electoral landscape, published in 2021, suggested looking into whether emergency proxies should be available for voters who do not receive their postal vote.

If you find an issue with elections, chances are electoral administrators have been warning about it.

At its heart, this is about democracy and trust. With voters’ trust in politicians and the political process at an all-time low, it is time to listen to the experts to ensure the system works just as effectively as the people within it.



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