England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, HR, workforce and communications

Celebrate the unsung heroes of democracy

Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay

On 5 May and 23 June, the electorate will go to the polls. In the days running up to each event, postal voters will receive their ballot papers and between 7:00am and 10:00pm on both of those days, electors will stroll into their polling stations and make their choices. Then everyone, the public, politicians and the media, will sit back and expect the results within hours of the polls closing.

It just happens. But not without the unstinting and often unappreciated efforts of a small band of dedicated administrators, toiling away behind the scenes.

There appears to be a misconception that there is a huge machine that administers the electoral process, whether it be registration, elections or referendums. Yes, local authorities have a duty to provide appropriate support to Electoral Registration and Returning Officers, but with resources stretched to the limit, funding of the democratic process is being chipped away at.

Perhaps it’s because there is a general confidence that electoral administrators will always deliver — a reputation that is well-deserved. However, in reality, across the UK the successful delivery of the elections in May and the referendum in June alongside the maintenance of an accurate electoral register is generally in the hands of middle managers and junior staff. Often two or three individuals managing some of the biggest and highest profile projects a local authority ever runs.

Individual Electoral Registration has introduced a level of complexity into the job that no one ever really appreciated. Online registration has rightly been lauded as a success, long overdue, but the unintended consequence is that significant numbers of applications are being made by individuals already registered to vote. The distribution of referendum literature has only exacerbated the challenge, confusing significant numbers of people to think they have to register separately to vote in that all-important poll.

This hardy band of administrators bade farewell to their families in the middle of March and will not expect to see them properly again until after the referendum result has been announced. Microwave meals and take-outs will be the order of the day with a snatched word of greeting/farewell to loved-ones. The hours will be long and hard, with a need to act as effective HR consultants, FM managers, negotiators, trainers, accountants, pension advisors and contract managers throughout.

When you drive past your local town hall or civic centre late at night and see a light burning, you can bet your bottom-dollar it’ll be the Electoral Services Team delivering democracy.

It’s a stressful but rewarding profession. Without the dedication shown by this small but hardy group, there wouldn’t be a result to mull over in the early hours of the morning after the poll. They truly are the unsung heroes of democracy.

Peter Stanyon is the Deputy Chief Executive of the the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA). The 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 has some 1,888 members, the majority of whom are employed by local authorities to provide electoral registration and election services.