Voter Throughput – is that YES Achilles Heel?

While thinking about the referendum to come in a mere 18 days time I started to think about when I would actually cast my own vote. Would I do it in the morning or would I do it in the evening? And that got me thinking a little more about what problems I might have if I’m away from home on the day and the risks of not getting home on time to vote. What if there was a queue to vote? (I spent almost ten years working as a consultant in risk identification and contingency planning, maybe it shows?)

And then I got a bit worried because I remembered this : (sourced from Wikipedia)

UK Election 2010 Voting problems

Problems occurred with voting at 27 polling places in 16 constituencies, and affected approximately 1,200 people.[154] This situation which was condemned by politicians of various parties. Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees the electoral process, was forced on to television to defend preparations and procedures. The Electoral Commission has announced it will be carrying out a “thorough investigation”.[155] Under the law in force at the 2010 election, voters had to have been handed their ballots by the 10 pm deadline; people who were waiting in queues to vote at 10 pm were not allowed to vote.[156]

In Chester there were reports that 600 registered voters were unable to vote because the electoral roll had not been updated,[157] while in Hackney, Islington, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield long queues led to many voters being turned away and unable to vote as the 10 pm deadline arrived.[155] Some dissatisfied voters staged sit-ins to protest against what some of them had called “disenfranchisement“.[155] In Liverpool, higher than expected turnout meant several polling stations ran out of ballot papers, with defeated council leader Warren Bradley stating that some residents were unable to cast their votes.[158] In Wyre and Preston North, a 14-year-old boy cast a vote after being sent a polling card.[159]

In parts of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg‘s Sheffield Hallam seat it was reported that students from the city’s two universities were placed in separate queues from ‘local’ residents, who were given priority, resulting in many students being unable to cast their votes.[160]

Just days after the election Clegg spoke at a Take Back Parliament rally saying the results showed the British system is broken and needs fixing, while vowing the voices of the protesters would be heard. The rally demanded Clegg affirm his promise to push for “democratic and proportional representation of the British public”.[161]

Because of closure of United Kingdom airspace as a result of the Iceland volcanic eruption, potential expat voters in New Zealand were denied a vote when postal voting papers arrived too late to be returned to the UK,[162] although Australian broadcaster SBS suggested that given the extremely tight timetabling of overseas votes, there is very little chance that voting papers [for voters outside Europe] will be received, let alone returned, in time to be counted.[163]

 

We’re at the most historic point in the UK for centuries. But we’ve never done exactly this before. We’re forecasting 80% plus turnout of people to vote. And now I’m worried. Can the system (i.e. marking people off on electoral roles, voter processing, putting votes into boxes) cope with the forecast high numbers? I know there’s been a large postal vote, but the turn-out forecast is still higher than any other election or public voting event.

When I vote in normal elections it’s usually in the evenings and there’s plenty of time for a little banter with the folk administering the process. Not this time there won’t be. Not if the high levels of turn out are achieved. Here’s a table showing the turn-outs at UK General Elections since 1945 :

Year 

UK

England

Wales

Scotland

N.Ireland

2010

65.1

65.5

64.7

63.8

57.6

2005

61.4

61.3

62.6

60.8

62.9

2001

59.4

59.2

61.6

58.2

68

1997

71.4

71.4

73.5

71.3

67.1

1992

77.7

78

79.7

75.5

69.8

1987

75.3

75.4

78.9

75.1

67

1983

72.7

72.5

76.1

72.7

72.9

1979

76

75.9

79.4

76.8

67.7

1974 Feb

78.8

79

80

79

69.9

1974 Oct

72.8

72.6

76.6

74.8

67.7

1970

72

71.4

77.4

74.1

76.6

1966

75.8

75.9

79

76

66.1

1964

77.1

77

80.1

77.6

71.7

1959

78.7

78.9

82.6

78.1

65.9

1955

76.8

76.9

79.6

75.1

74.1

1951

82.6

82.7

84.4

81.2

79.9

1950

83.9

84.4

84.8

80.9

77.4

1945

72.8

73.4

75.7

69

67.4

 

(source: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm)

From this table, we can see that the forecast of 80% turn out is going to be as high as the turn-outs in the 1950’s and probably about 20% higher than we’ve had since the 1970’s. If we look at the turn-out for Scottish Parliamentary Elections the gap is probably going to be even wider:

Year

Turn Out

1999

59%

2003

49.4%

2007

51.8%

2011

50.4%

(source – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Scotland)

 

Have we got a problem in the making here? 30% more people going to vote might not be a problem – but it could be. So who can reassure me that this is all going to work smoothly on the 18th September and that changes have been implemented following the debacle in some of the 2010 UK elections? How do we find out? How do we check? How do we have confidence that all voters will get in to cast their vote?

Is this the Achilles heel of the YES campaign and YES voters? It’s looking to me like we need to be sure we get all our votes cast early in the day. I’ll be voting before I go to work. Can I encourage you to do the same?

Meanwhile, I’m going to call the Electoral Commission tomorrow and have a chat with them about this. I’d really like to know that they’ve done some kind of throughput assessments and calculations, particularly for city centre polling stations.

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