England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

The closest elections in history?


Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay

The Prime Minister’s rather equivocal statement about European elections might leave voters confused about whether or not the UK will go to the polls to elect MEPs on 23 May. But what this means for electoral officers and local authorities across the country is that they must prepare for the poll, whether it happens or not. Normally, we would delay local elections three weeks to coincide with the Europeans to avoid extra expense and voter fatigue, this time we may have no choice but to run elections back to back.

Whether we have European elections or not councils must prepare  for elections – just three weeks after the locals in the vast majority of English councils. These could well be the elections staged most closely together in UK history. (If you’re instead looking for which elections are the most closely contested – we have that for you here.)

We know from our own contacts that council officers have been phoning primary schools and village halls to enquire about spaces to hold the poll. Electoral administrators who may have already booked holidays for immediately after the local elections will be quietly checking the fine details of their travel insurance.

Whether or not we hold what some are calling zombie elections, councils have to be ready – all while in the middle of running local elections.

Two years ago, Peter Stanyon, Chief Executive of the AEA described the impact of running not just locals but also a snap election on electoral administrators for our blog.  This year’s toll may be even higher.

Here’s what he wrote:

Peter Stanyon, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), asks you to spare a thought for all those who work behind the scenes to bring us the mechanics of democracy.  

A year ago, I wrote a blog for Out for the Count that paid tribute to the unsung heroes of democracy, the small band of dedicated administrators toiling behind the scenes to deliver nationwide polls in May and the EU referendum in June.

Guess what? I’m back again to say almost the same thing. The big difference on this occasion is that time is not on their side, with the first truly snap general election since the 1970’s called right in the middle of preparations in most parts of the country for local elections.

The pressure on electoral administrators is unceasing, and it is true to say that even going into this round of elections many of them remain “punch drunk” from the events of the last couple of years: the introduction of individual electoral registration, the May 2016 elections, the EU referendum, an intensive electoral registration canvass, the spectre of boundary reviews, the May 2017 elections and, out of the blue, another high profile national poll.

The misconception of a huge machinery administering the electoral process prevails. Yes, local authorities do provide support to administer the electoral process, but with the public finances under continual strain and the availability of resources reducing, it falls once again to quite junior and low-paid staff to pull the rabbit out of the hat and continue to deliver safe and secure elections. The personal cost is, as a result, understandably high.

The words of Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, only a fortnight ago were telling:

It falls to me to state, for the benefit of the House, our mutual respect, regardless of party politics, for those individuals who work behind the scenes tirelessly preparing for elections. A general election has been called. We have local and mayoral elections in some places on 4 May. When it comes to democracy, as Members of Parliament we are very much actors on a stage, and it is the people behind the scenes who ensure that our democracy is the best it can be and one of the best in the world … As Members of Parliament, we depend entirely upon them and are in their debt.

So why do electoral administrators do it? Why put themselves through the mill time and time again?

Well, there is no obvious answer other than to say it gets under your skin. You either love it or hate it, there is no middle ground and if you don’t have that special -some might say strange – character, the electoral world will eat you up and spit you out.

The local elections this week have all but been forgotten: by the media, national politicians and the general public alike. Rest assured they haven’t by those tasked with delivering them, the hardy band who will do their upmost to ensure that every eligible elector is given every opportunity to vote without even being aware of the efforts that have gone into booking and staffing that polling station, processing that postal vote or administering the count into the early hours of the morning. And then they’ll start all over again, cancelling their pre-arranged holidays, putting other plans on hold and deliver a successful parliamentary election, against all the odds.

Many bade farewell to their families in the middle of March and will now not expect to see them properly again until mid-June. Forget Masterchef. Microwave meals, take-outs and coffee … oh, so much coffee … has been and will continue to be the order of the day. Snatched moments with loved ones, far too much time with work colleagues, and stressful conversations with members of the public and episodes of unreality all add up to the real world of an electoral administrator.

I’ll end by repeating what I said last year. 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. Dedication and personal commitment are the order of the day and if there’s one group of local authority workers who deserve recognition, respect and, at these stressful times, understanding, it’s them.

I was one of that band for 30 years. I escaped the coal face a year ago but deep down, I miss it. It’s for that reason I make a plea: treasure the hardy band delivering the elections this week and in June. Without them, democracy would not happen. We owe them so much.

They truly are the unsung heroes of democracy. Thank you to them all.

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.