England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

But you only work one day a year…

Photo Credit: fairfaxcounty Flickr via Compfight cc

Peter Stanyon is the Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators and a former electoral administrator. He highlights the additional frustrations of running two elections at once, one of which was not supposed to happen.

Elections … don’t you just love them!  Well, that’s probably not a sentiment being uttered by returning officers and electoral administrators across the UK at this moment in time.

In previous blogs for the LGiU, I have done my best to pay tribute to the small band of dedicated administrators toiling behind the scenes to deliver the electoral process, those unsung heroes of democracy.

Well, their dedication and commitment to duty is being put to the test once again.

For months, we have been reassured that European Parliamentary elections would not be required as “the UK is leaving the EU on 29 March”.  Well, we know what’s happened (or not!) since, and at the time of writing, electoral administrators right across the UK (and indeed in Gibraltar) are having to now arrange those elections in a significantly shorter timescale than is reasonable … and in the case of those 249 local authority areas in England and 11 local councils in Northern Ireland, whilst still administering the local government elections, which in themselves are highly complicated beasts.

So what does it mean in reality?  Across the UK, many people will have had the opportunity to take a break over the extended Easter period … no such luxury for electoral administrators, no over-indulging in chocolate or extended time with loved ones.

Postal votes for the local elections are coming back in droves, each having to be individually security checked; polling station and count staff needing to be trained; ballot papers for polling stations checked and ballot boxes prepared; election agents and candidates briefed; liaison with the local police undertaken; last minute checks on polling station and count venues done; conversations with parish clerks ongoing … and steps taken to welcome the new intake of councillors when the results are declared.

But as well as all of this, those same administrators are having to start afresh on the equivalent arrangements for the European Parliamentary elections that they had been assured for months and months would not be happening.

And there are further complications … secondary schools will be into exam season, making their availability problematic; disruption will be caused to teachers, pupils and families because primary and nursery schools are needed again at very short notice; village halls and community centres will be unavailable because bookings for other events have already been made; polling station and count staff will be on holiday or otherwise unavailable; printers are creaking under the strain of providing poll cards, postal voting packs and ballot papers to their clients. And for those of you who have never seen a European Parliamentary ballot paper, be prepared for something that could be two-foot long, not your traditional A5 slip!

And does anyone have a clue as to what the turnout might be?  It’s not a flippant question because the very size of the ballot papers will mean ballot boxes filling up very quickly … another headache to solve and contingency plans to be developed!

In essence, we are talking about squeezing a six-month project into six-weeks whilst at the same time running alongside it an equally, if not more, important six-month project delivering local democracy.

We cannot pretend that the next few weeks will be easy for those working in electoral services. But one thing we know for sure – the people who will make these polls happen, both those that are planned and those that are less so, are the same people who make huge personal sacrifices year after year to give electors the opportunity to have their say in polling booths across the UK.

The midnight oils will be burning in electoral services offices right across the nation for a while yet; microwave meals and take-outs eaten; copious amounts of coffee drunk; precious moments snatched with loved ones; far too much time spent with work colleagues; stressful conversations being had with members of the public; and episodes of unreality abounding. The local elections on 2 May is the immediate priority but it is not the only one.

That’s the reality of the life this small band of dedicated local government professionals are currently living, those individuals of whom it is often jokingly said “only work one day a year!”  Nothing could be further from the truth -without them, where would we be?

The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) was founded in 1987 and is the professional body representing the interests of electoral administrators in the United Kingdom. It is a non-governmental and non-partisan body and just under 2,000 members, the majority of whom are employed by local authorities to provide electoral registration and election services.

You can find previous blog posts from here and all of LGiU’s elections support and coverage here.