England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Online absent vote applications: one pressure too many for the strained electoral sector?


Red post box on a street. Photo by Kutan Ural on Unsplash

LGIU’s recent work on voter ID demonstrated the serious pressures faced by staff who run elections in England. At the end of this month, a new and half-finished system will be introduced across England: online absent vote applications. In this article, Dr Greg Stride explores how a good idea can be implemented in the wrong way.

Our report on voter ID, launched at the start of September, highlighted many weaknesses in the current system of electoral administration in England: overworked elections staff, complex electoral law, unmanageable timetables, issues with staff recruitment and retention, and any number of other challenges. In the conclusions of the report, we noted that elections are part of the critical infrastructure of UK democracy, and elections staff should be supported to ensure they can fulfil their crucial role.

One of the biggest pressures electoral administrators told us they face is the introduction of new, technically challenging, policies with very short timescales to implement them and few failsafes if they go wrong. In May it was voter ID, with a new system of free voter identification (Voter Authority Certificates) introduced only a few months before the local elections, leaving electoral administrators learning to cope with a new system that suffered from functionality issues from the very beginning.

And now, a few short weeks after our report, it is happening again. Another major, relatively untested, change, implemented without important functionality and against the advice of the electoral sector, is being introduced.

What is changing?

From October 31st 2023 it will be possible to apply for a postal or proxy vote online for elections in England. Before, electors had to fill in a paper form and send it away to get what is known in the sector as an “absent vote”.

There are several clear reasons this is a good idea. First, we’ve had online registration for years now, and it’s proven popular. The vast majority of applications to register to vote are now made online and there is no support for a return to a paper-only system.

Second, a working online system would cut down on paper, mailings and time. Any more efficient system is always a good idea. As our research has shown, electoral administrators in England are under unprecedented strain, and anything that can be done to make their work easier can only be positive. Similarly for electors, filling in an online form is much easier than downloading, printing and mailing a paper form, and it’s important that the voting process be as easy and accessible as possible.

Finally, this system is part of a tranche of changes that will, from the new year, include overseas electors having their right to vote in UK elections extended to beyond the current 15 year limit. This could vastly increase the number of overseas electors and there should be systems in place, including online absent vote applications, to decrease the burdens they (and electoral administrators) would face getting them into a position where they can vote.

Then what is the problem?

The first problem is to do with timing. The electoral sector is united in its belief that making this change from the 31st October is too soon. From that date, every elector will be able to expect online absent vote applications to be working properly for any election (in England – across other parts of the UK there will be divergent rules) and the electoral sector believes the system is simply not ready.

As just one example of a function that won’t be available. At the moment, electoral administrators can process paper absent vote applications in bulk using their existing software. From 31st October, administrators have told me they will lose this functionality for paper applications. Meaning that any paper application they get will have to be processed by hand one-by-one, entered into the new digital system manually. This is likely to be the case until January when a new update should replicate the existing functionality.

This is a huge waste of one of an electoral administrators most valuable resources: time. It might seem like a small delay to wait until January, but there are polls every week, and electoral administrators will be working with an unfinished system throughout November and December. Also, who is to say that the system will be functional by January? It is a risk to rely on a fix that might be delayed.

How bad could this get?

There are problems that are inevitable, such as significant new pressures on the often invisible but crucial work of electoral administrators – a group where already 95% of them in our survey say they are overworked and 76% that the elections in May were already more stressful than previous elections. These small teams should be supported and their concerns addressed, rather than having more and more pressures piled on top of them. It is the Returning Officer who has legal responsibility for the conduct of an election, and they should not be expected to take on the risk of operating an unfinished system.

Then there are problems that are likely. In this category there are administrative issues with getting postal votes back to electors in time given the intricacies of the new system coming into contact with the significant time and resource pressures administrators are already facing. It doesn’t matter if this is a minority of electors, because every vote is equally valuable.

Then, there are the worst case scenarios. In this group you could place the possibility – however remote – of a snap general election being called in the early months of 2024. This might seem politically unlikely, but the point is that were it to happen, as it legally could, the electoral sector would have to navigate a completely new, untested and dysfunctional system while dealing with an explosion in postal vote applications and all of the other existing pressures of running a general election. 93% of electoral administrators in our research told us the challenge of organising a snap election was already a problem, adding this would only exacerbate matters.

What should be done?

This reform should be delayed. Not until January 2024, which puts it perilously close to the start of the election timetable for local elections in May, but until the election timetable is clear for at least six months. In a normal year this should be May 2024, but 2024, with the looming threat of a snap general election, might just be the wrong year to introduce a change of this complexity full stop.

Check out our collection of LGIU resources on participation, including more insights on voter ID


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