England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

The challenges of planning and running UK elections

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Polling station. Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

Andrew Smith, Chair of the Association of Electoral Administrators, provides insights into the challenges of preparing for and running UK elections. Discussing the work involved in booking polling stations and counting venues, recruiting and training staff, and printing poll cards and ballot papers for millions of voters. He also address changes to the Elections Act, overseas electors, and constituency boundary changes.

“My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year.”

Since the Prime Minister said this on 4 January, it’s done little to stop speculation about the date for the next UK Parliamentary general election. Politicians, journalists and podcasters joke about long campaign hours and drinking strong coffee in the early hours of election counts. What you rarely hear mentioned is the work it takes to plan and run a general election from an electoral registration and administration point of view.

Over four years into the current Parliament, the electoral community is in a constant state of alert for a general election announcement. It’s not great for stress levels – or planning holidays, big events and life in general.

Will we have a longish lead-in to the election, or do we have to fit everything into the minimum 25 working-day timetable? In 2017, we had a seven-week run-up, although general election prep ran in parallel with the May polls’ timetable.

In 2019, we had months of rumbling, so plenty of work had to be done by the time the date was finally confirmed – although being accused of ruining Christmas parties and nativity plays stung when the poll date was out of our hands. We also had to complete the annual electoral registration canvass at the same time.

Whether we end up with a longer run-up or a snap election, long working days seven days a week are in store across the sector. Once we have a date, the immediate priority will be booking polling stations and counting venues, followed by recruiting and training the staff.

For polls on the first Thursday in May, you plan months and even years ahead. You book venues and have people block out their diaries. Outside that cycle, though, it can be hard to convince venues to turn away their bread-and-butter bookings.

It’s even harder to convince people to volunteer for another long day of polling or an overnight count they hadn’t planned for. And they will be overnight as the law requires, regardless of the health and wellbeing of attendees.

A general election needs 40,000 polling stations across the UK, with 150,000 polling station staff. That takes time, energy and forensic organisational skill to arrange.

Arranging count venues can also be tricky. While sports hall availability may be easier to negotiate, booking major venues to count multiple constituencies is hit and miss depending on event calendars. Taylor Swift will always trump ballot papers and finger cones!

Venues going bust in recent years also reduce availability. For all venues, however much you want to find the perfect place to cast or count votes, sometimes you have to settle for good enough.

Then there’s the sheer amount of printing for a general election: poll cards and ballot papers for 47.5 million voters at the 2019 General Election, plus postal votes—8.2 million in 2019. There’s a small group of secure printers who’ll be running printing presses around the clock, and local posties who’ll have significantly longer rounds than usual.

I also don’t know an electoral administrator or supplier who isn’t concerned about how the Elections Act changes will run at a high turnout poll.

Peter Stanyon, the AEA’s Chief Executive, covered many of these changes in his recent blog, including voter ID, online absent vote applications and postal vote handling changes.

For me and many colleagues across England and Wales, the 2nd May polls will be the first time these changes run across our entire local authority area. We’ll learn lessons to take into the general election, and we’ll share them more widely, including with colleagues in Scotland who’ll run voter ID and more for the first time at that poll.

Electoral change can present very differently at local and general elections. What’s manageable at 30 to 40% turnout can be far more challenging at 60 to 70%. We build flexibility into our plans, but there are only so many hours, and we work to immoveable deadlines.

General Election-specific changes are also in play around overseas electors and constituency boundary changes.

Since January, the number of potential overseas voters has increased from 1.1 million to 3.5 million. Areas of the country with larger and more transient populations, like my borough, are already seeing higher application levels.

We can only do our best to prepare for the knock-on effect of last-minute applications, especially those requiring additional evidence or attestation. The resources we’ll need and when are an educated guess.

Thankfully, changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries are very clear. One of my three constituencies remains the same, with the others rebalanced within borough boundaries. Most Wandsworth voters will see little change.

Voters, candidates and electoral colleagues in other areas will see major change. While there will still be 650 constituencies, many have been enlarged, reduced, or indeed replaced, as ten completely new constituencies make their debut.

Confirming what you can as early as possible provides reassurance. Reviews of the polling district, polling station and count venue have been carried out. Cross-boundary working arrangements are being confirmed, and paper for poll cards, postal votes and ballot papers has been preordered.

And what do you do when you feel stumped or hit a wall? You turn to a network of people who know exactly what you’re going through.

The AEA branch system means both local and national support is never far away. In this busiest of election years, it’s needed more than ever – whenever the general election is called.

Curious about what happens at an election count or looking for other answers to your local elections-related questions? Check out our Local Elections 101 page for more insights.



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