We need to modernise and strengthen the electoral machinery

By Professor Toby James | 18 September 2019

The starting gun for a general election has nearly been fired several times.  There should be no doubt that an election is around the corner. 

When that does come, would electoral officials be ready? 

Study after study has shown that UK elections are very well run. And this cannot be said frequently enough in a climate where the public increasingly lack trust in public officials.  An increasingly common feature of recent contests has been for electors to bring pens to polling stations, worried  that officials might rub off their vote, for example.

But the pressure is on.

Cuts to local government funding has meant that many departments have had to function with less resources.  The number of election departments that were over budget substantially rose between 2010/11 and 2015/16 as a result, as a more resource intensive voter registration process was simultaneously brought in.  One way in which savings were made was to cut back on the ‘nice extras’ such as voter outreach work.  These are not nice extras, however, but indispensable services raising citizenship amongst hard to reach communities.

The introduction of individual electoral registration and online voter registration has led to seasonal rushes with hundreds of thousands of last minute applications.  Electors increasingly ignore the annual canvass and then apply online in the days and hours ahead of Election Day.   Just the whiff of an election caused a quarter of a million to apply to register online at the start of September 2019. Each need to be diligent processed.  Sadly, the absence of a ‘Am I registered?’ website will mean that many were duplicates.

The number and type of electoral events has rapidly increased, bringing with them more and more laws and regulations. It  is not therefore a surprise that research shows electoral officials to be amongst the most stressed in the world. 

Thankfully the norms of civic duty and professionalism are also strong. Measures to modernise and strengthen the electoral machinery are needed to put elections on a surer ground, however.  A cross party report on the Missing Millions, Still Missing provides some keys.  Proposals include funding, legal consolidation and moves to automatic registration. Alongside the reforms to the annual canvass, that an earlier report influenced, there is a roadmap for the future. 

Toby James is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and co-author of the Missing Millions, Still Missing report.

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