Local government does a brilliant job in elections

By Ben Page | 11 November 2020
  • Ben Page

After a few days of watching the American elections, I am starting to feel rather patriotic, partly because the UK polls performed much better than the American ones in both May and December last year; Ipsos MORI’s average error for each party in December was only 0.3%. The Brits therefore may have learned their lessons from 2016, whereas Americans seem to be repeating them. But I am proudest of the brilliant job local government does in British elections.

Our system just seems to work. Although we count elections locally, they are all run on the same countrywide basis. So, no local variation on voter registration, on who’s eligible for a postal vote, or when postal votes are counted, or on verification for postal voting, or on how results are announced. In contrast, the variation in the US system has been very confusing and clearly damaged the credibility of US democracy (helped too by Trump’s antics of course).

We know that state-controlled laws on voter registration have been used as vote suppressants in outrageous way – with all sorts of tests designed to trip up poor black voters. The fact that elected state officials, who stand on party slates, oversee elections in the US provides plenty of opportunity to those who want to cause mischief. In contrast, in the UK, elections are overseen by independent local authority officials who are consistently excellent. While issuing running vote tallies as votes get counted provides transparency, they allow some to erroneously argue that fraud is taking place. In contrast, given the result is only announced once in the UK, after all the votes have been counted, I cannot ever recall an election like the one Americans are currently fighting over.

It made me think that the electoral count teams of Sunderland and Newcastle, who vie to produce the fastest count in the UK, should get on a plane and go and help out. Their commonsense approaches – like using bank tellers to help with the count – might make all the difference.

While we look at America’s divisions, and see our own reflected back, it is sometimes worth remembering just how efficient and effective British local government is, and also, just to cheer us up, that our politics remain far less divided than the Americans’.

Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos MORI


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