England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

The changing job of running elections


Image: AlanOrganLRPS (licensed from istock)

This article is part of our local elections support for LGIU members and wider local government.

With less than two months until 4th May polls, electoral administrators at over 200 local authorities across England are heads down, preparing for the election timetable to start counting down.

Notices of election must be published by 27th March at the latest, but many areas will publish early to allow enough time to accept and check nomination papers. These can number in the hundreds, and in areas with Parish Councils, can be absolutely staggering.

Returning Officers (ROs) and administrators are facing all the business as usual tasks of running elections, on the familiar 25 working day project plan, with a host of immoveable deadlines.

Delivering voter ID

But they are also at the frontline of introducing the most fundamental and visible change in decades to how our elections run.

From 4th May, any elector turning up at their polling station to vote in local government polls in England* must show an accepted form of photo ID to be able to vote.

It doesn’t matter how long someone has been voting for, whether the presiding officer has known them since they were at school together, or whether they have some other kind of ID on them. No accepted photo ID, no ballot paper.

The concept is simple, but the work to introduce it has been anything but.

While voter ID pilots were run in both 2018 and 2019, the reality of legislating and producing guidance for a large-scale roll-out is very different.

Parliament passed secondary Elections Act legislation for voter ID in December 2022. It came into law in January 2023. Guidance and supporting documentation is still emerging. Returning officers and electoral administrators are having to take all of this in at the same time as keeping everything else going.

Huge efforts are being expended trying to reach every elector to tell them about voter ID:

  1. That they’ll need it
  2. Which types of photo ID will be accepted
  3. If they don’t have an accepted photo ID, how to apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate (VAC).

Electoral Registration Officers, whether they have 4 May elections scheduled or not, are also having to write to every anonymous elector to explain the separate process they must follow.

Thankfully, new Electoral Commission research shows voter ID awareness is going in the right direction – 63% of people know they need to bring ID to vote in a polling station, compared with 22% in December 2022.

With local authorities, charities and other organisations supporting and supplementing the Electoral Commission’s awareness campaign, this number should continue to rise.

The number of VAC applications is also likely to rise. As of 14 March, 32,600 VAC applications had been made since the process opened on 16 January.

Government research suggests 2% of electors do not have one of the accepted forms of photo ID. We expect VAC applications will rise once poll cards land on doormats, and again around the application deadline of 5pm on 25 April.

Application spikes around deadlines are an ongoing elections issue. Many people only register to vote at the last moment, however many nudges they receive. We continue to call for a longer elections timetable of 30 working days to offset the administration-heavy effects of these predictable peaks.

Within the current 25 working day timetable, an influx of last minute VAC applications would pose a problem. There are manual photo checks involved, and potential data-matching needed. There are also reports from some of our members that postal vote applications have increased. This all takes time, and nobody can predict by how much.

With a VAC deadline of 5pm just six working days ahead of the poll, any last-minute applications deemed invalid will also leave those electors little time to apply for an alternative form of accepted ID. No RO or electoral administrator wants to see electors disenfranchised.

At the polling station

And what of polling station bookings? The effect of the pandemic and energy costs mean fewer venues are available, and costs are higher. Closing schools for elections continues to be an issue for some areas, especially with some schools already closing on multiple days already this year due to strike action.

Elections teams are also having to consider new Elections Act 2022 accessibility requirements, and that voter ID will increase polling station queues and wait times. A private area is now legally required for use on request for electors to show ID, or to remove face coverings. All this means polling stations may need to be relocated, harder in some areas than others, and often confusing for electors.

Polling station staff recruitment and retention is a concern. The pandemic saw some presiding officers and poll clerks decide to hang up their pencils on strings. Still others have decided the significant extra responsibility of checking voter ID would be too much for them.

An increasingly complicated role

Government funding is available to recruit extra polling station staff, but there is no money to increase the basic amount being paid for what is an increasingly complicated role.

Additional training on both voter ID and new accessibility requirements has to be layered on top of instructions on all the other tasks poll clerks and presiding officers are expected to carry out.

At the very heart of all this, ROs, electoral administrators, candidates, political parties, government and electors have to rely on the understanding and ability of thousands of one-day-a-year staff to deliver voter ID correctly.

In the majority of cases, they will. But being human, and dealing with humans, mistakes and misunderstandings are inevitable. How these are resolved is what will matter, but this will be harder to deal with due to the inevitable glare of political, public and media scrutiny.

Introducing huge changes creates many unknowns. RO risk registers for 4 May have had to consider all sorts of potential scenarios and outcomes from scanning for and dealing with misinformation, preventing and reacting to abuse of polling station and election staff, to liaising with police should any issues flare.

Will there be a suggestion voter ID has lost candidates a council seat or even council control? We wait to see. We hope candidates, agents and campaigners will remember that seats have often been won by the smallest of margins. We also hope any critics will remember to target policy, not the people tasked with delivering it.

The coming months will be a learning curve for the whole electoral community. Those without elections will be watching, supporting and learning from those who do.

Issues and unintended consequences will pop up, and solutions will be found. Reviewing and improving processes is second nature for election professionals. There’s a supportive network ready to share and problem solve, and lessons will be learned and applied.

Within a few electoral cycles, voter ID will become another part of the business as usual work of elections. Until then though, we send our best to the 4 May poll pioneers. We’re all behind you.

*Voter ID coverage across the UK

From 4 May 2023, Voter ID will apply to:

  • Local elections and referendums in England
  • Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales
  • Parliamentary by-elections or recall petitions anywhere in Great Britain

From 5 October 2023 voter ID will apply across Great Britain for UK Parliamentary general elections.

Northern Ireland’s existing voter ID provisions remain unchanged.

Voter ID is not required for local elections in Scotland or Wales, Scottish Parliamentary or Senedd elections.

You can find all the LGIU’s 2023 elections resources here:

Local elections 2023


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