Election Law Issues in the United Kingdom

Some short observations from someone familiar with New York’s, ah, “issues” with reliable voting.

When New York implements its new paper ballot/optical scanner voting system this coming election — I say “when” and not “if” because I’m optimistic to the point of foolishness — we’ll be ahead of England in at least a few material ways.

England uses a basic paper ballot system. No scanners. Just paper ballots, and hand-counting. Like on Battlestar Galactica. Still, as of late last night, they’d managed to run into two major issues.

First, several precincts were reported to have run out of paper ballots. This is a problem that could recur in New York, but we’ve solved it — kind of. As the law stands, every election district must stock a number of paper ballots equivalent to 110% of the district’s registered voters. Additionally, every voter is entitled to a maximum of three paper ballots. If the voter manages to spoil three successive ballots, which I did see happen in upstate New York last cycle, but only once, then that’s it. Their right to vote was discharged, but ineffectively.

Spoilage occurs most commonly because, for whatever reason, the voter marks their ballot, but the machine fails to read it, necessitating a new ballot free of stray marks. Reports vary on how regularly that problem occurs, but whatever the rate, it’s not a problem in the case of hand counting. How British precincts managed to run out of paper in a 55% turnout election, then, is unclear, unless they just weren’t prepared.

One problem remains: stocking an effective number of ballots is monstrously expensive. Paper ballots cost between $.10 to $.70 each, depending on whether the county can afford an in-house print shop. In some cases, that works out to a lot of money. But when the alternative is so starkly presented — a contentious election where not every interested voter can cast a ballot — the cost issue starts to diminish.

Second, many British precincts turned away voters who were in line at 10 PM, or, close of polls. No American jurisdiction that I’m aware of follows that rule; to the contrary, if you’re in line at close, you cast a ballot. Still worse, one precinct was reported to have unilaterally kept its doors open until 10:30, creating a litigatable irregularity, and violating British law, which requires voting to cease by the time exit polls are released, to avoid an election tainted by what “should” happen.

There are a couple of ways to read events like this. Put simply, though, it’s just this: democracy is hard.


  1. That a few hundred voters each at a couple of polling stations were unable to vote is of course unfortunate, but I think the only reason is incompetent reporting officers, and it didn’t matter to the outcome anyway.

    Frankly, as a problem it pales into nothingness compared to the fact that over 4.5 million LibDem have effectively been disenfranchised by the electoral system itself.

    (Also, ‘England’ != ‘UK’. ;-) )

  2. Yeah, can you tell me about that issue? I don’t think I understand it.

  3. Basically, the UK system is first-past-the-post with single-winner constituencies, pretty much like the US Congress elections. Those work fine enough with only two large parties, because the winner in each constituency is also likely to have received an absolute majority of the votes, or at least close.

    But the problem in the UK is that there are three large parties – the slightly larger Labour and Conservatives, and the slightly smaller Liberal Democrats. In that situation, it’s perfectly normal for the winner to be returned with only 35-40% of the total votes, especially in some of the more marginal constituencies. Of course, all the remaining votes are lost, and that’s a huge problem for the LibDems in particular because they very often come in second or a close third place to one or both of the other two big parties. They have some strongholds of their own, but they’re pretty broadly spread around in the rest of the country, so it adds up to a lot of wasted votes on the national level.

    The results are here. The Tories have got 10.7 million or 36% of the votes, but 47% of the seats. Labour got 8.6 million or 29% votes, but almost 40% seats. And the LibDems got 6.8 million and 23% votes, but only a measly 9% seats. Even worse, the LibDems actually gained 1% in the popular vote, but lost five seats. It’s madness.

  4. Ahhhhh that’s what I thought. I’m well acquainted with that problem, but didn’t know the numbers. Similarly, we’re trying to push instant runoff voting in New York state, to fix the lost vote problem & save loads of money… but meeting huge opposition. The Assembly as I understand it is behind IRV; the Senate, though, just wants to repeal runoffs altogether, which solves one problem while aggravating another. Gah.

  5. Yeah, Labour have made some feeble noises in the past about maybe thinking about some form of IRV, while the LibDems want a full multi-seat single transferable vote system. But it’s bloody difficult to get anything done when the system favours the two big parties so massively. It’s just not in their interest to fix it.

  6. Can I just say that when it comes to voting, Australia rules. We have 96% turnout to our elections, all paper ballots and I have never heard of the running out of paper. Plus we use instant runoff voting, which means that ballots have to be counted multiple times and moved from pile to pile. And these days the Senate ballot is about 2 feet wide with all the candidates. All this and we can still get an accurate result in one night. (I am given to understand they spend the next two weeks redoing the count slower to make sure they got it right, but still).

    1. Mintman · ·

      Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but is your high turnout not simply because of compulsory voting? And is your system not one of the most complicated in the world, to the point where all candidates and parties need to publish manuals for their supporters outlining how to best distribute your votes? At least that is what I got from the internet…

      1. Yes and no. The how to vote cards are usually for the lower house (Representatives), usually 4 to 8 candidates depending on how many independents run. They are easy enough to fill out without any assistance. The upper house (Senate) has tickets, which are published online for disclosure, are for above the line voting. There are two ways to fill out the form, in full numbering every candidate (about 70) or above the line where you mark a single party and your vote is treated as though you filled it out according to an ordering that party has determined and submitted to the electoral commission.

        As for the high turn out, even though it is compulsory, it still is a huge logistical effort to be ready for 96% of the country to show up in a couple of thousand churches and schools around the country to vote in an orderly fashion.

      2. Mintman · ·

        You vote in churches? I would never have thought that anybody anywhere could consider that appropriate… We Germans use the buildings of schools and community centers.

        1. Steve · ·

          I’ve seen churches used as voting locations in the US. At least, I think it was a church.

        2. Usually halls attached or adjacent to a church. Never a particular denomination, either, just which ever one has a room large enough and is centrally located. I don’t see an inherent problem with it, it is a building, the election officials run the actual voting, and usually the volunteer fire fighters run a BBQ outside. You are more likely to find a church in a small town than a school.

  7. From what I’ve seen of an interim report and comment on the internet, the basic problem seems to have been caused by inadequate planning and combining the general election with some local council elections.

    Part of the problem is that the responsibilities for running general and local elections are normally held by different people. When the two are combined – and in most of the problematic areas this was the first time in at least a generation that they were combined – it’s normally the general election people who take over but they can sometimes lack experience of local elections.

    It seems some returning officers (the constituency/district-wide officials in overall charge of each race) made major underestimates of both the likely turnout and the length of time voting would take. This was because:

    * The polling districts (what you would call a precinct) have been inadequately reviewed with the result that some polling stations had far more voters allocated to them than is advised.

    * The number of ballot papers to be printed is per the returning officer’s discretion. Some returning officers based their calculations of the likely turnout on recent local elections, which have much smaller turnout (20-40% instead of 50-80%). However the ballot paper shortage was generally not the main issue attracting attention here.

    * The lengthy queues were the real problem. A lot of this seems to have been down to having the general and local elections at the same time. The result was that many voters were not expecting the local election ballot papers and were not used to the different instructions for each paper – general: put one mark in single column by preferred candidate to elect one MP; directly elected Mayor: put one mark in first column by first preferred candidate and an optional second mark in second column by second preferred candidate to elect one Mayor; councillor: put up to three marks in single column by preferred candidates to elect three councillors. Additionally the local elections got very little coverage in the national media compared to normal, so voters might have had to think longer about their choice, plus some parties don’t field a full set of candidates (I stood for councillor and had no Liberal Democrat opponents at all) and there are reports from previous elections of confused voters asking staff about this. All of this would mean voters taking much longer to vote than in a normal stand-alone general election.

    Compounding the problems were some inadequate choices of venue for polling stations that made handling the queues much harder; plus some presiding officers (the people in charge of individual polling stations) failed to communicate the problems early enough, so extra staff could not be dispatched until it was too late.

    There have been a couple of court cases over when voting ceases and they’ve found that the crucial moment is when the ballot paper is handed over (this is more because of equal treatment than anything to do with exit polls; the first case dates from 1901). Because of the small numbers involved all round compared to most majorities it’s doubtful any election result will be overturned because of this (and the last time the courts overturned one it led to a by-election in which the appellant went from losing by 2 votes to losing by 21,000, so no politician outside Northern Ireland will want to try that), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some changes to election law to ease the situation.

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