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Electoral Commission renews calls for electoral law reforms in review of May 2019 elections

The Electoral Commission has issued a fresh call for electoral law to be updated, after issuing a report on the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections and local elections.

The watchdog said that the “most notable and regrettable” issues which impacted on people’s confidence in the May elections were those experienced by some citizens of other EU member states living in the UK who wanted to vote in the European Parliament elections in the UK.

“We highlighted similar difficulties to government after the 2014 European Parliamentary elections and made recommendations for change. It is unacceptable that people eligible to vote should be frustrated from doing so, and deeply regrettable that this was not acted on and resolved by the UK government,” the Electoral Commission said.

Any changes to the process would have required the Government to introduce legislation, but the law was not changed ahead of the 2019 election, the watchdog said in the report.

It added that the difficulties “were also exacerbated by government not confirming the position on these elections proceeding until very late in the lead up to May 2019, which meant that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) had not sent declaration forms to EU citizens in the months before the election, as would usually have been the case”.

Overseas electors also contacted the Electoral Commission during and after the European Parliamentary elections to express concern that they had been unable to return postal votes in time to be counted.

The watchdog said this was “not a new issue and again UK governments have not addressed this problem by making changes in the law, so effectively denying numbers of UK citizens overseas who are entitled to vote a reasonably practical way to actually vote”.

The Electoral Commission said: “Many of the issues highlighted in our report are not new, and we have said for some time that the failure of governments and parliaments to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address pressure on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. 

“The 2019 elections illustrate that electoral law is increasingly complex and outdated, and presents real risks for voters, candidates and campaigners, and electoral administrators. 

“The difficulties experienced by some EU citizens in the UK and British citizens living abroad at the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections have again shown the impact on elections of governments not acting on recommendations to prioritise the interests of voters.”

The Electoral Commission meanwhile said that effective electoral administration that supported voter confidence depended on good planning and management by EROs and Returning Officers (ROs).

“While ROs and EROs will always need to be prepared to respond to unanticipated political developments, governments should also ensure that their decisions support effective contingency planning,” it said.

“We will continue to strongly emphasise the need for governments to ensure there is clarity about the legal framework for elections at least six months before EROs and ROs need to deliver statutory processes.

“Given all of this, it is an immense credit to the ROs and other electoral staff across the country that they achieved what they did in the circumstances: largely well-run elections in the face of substantial challenges.”

The Electoral Commission said its research with the public showed that a majority of people were confident the May 2019 elections were well-run, and most voters were satisfied with the voting process. “But overall levels of confidence about the European Parliamentary elections and the local government elections in England were lower than at other recent elections.”

Responding to the report, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) described the reduced level of voter confidence in how May’s elections were run as “discouraging”.

The AEA said: “For the European Parliamentary Elections, this understandably stems from the widely reported difficulties faced by significant numbers of EU citizens which was disappointing given the complexities of their registration process was highlighted by the Commission five years ago.

“As the electoral community prepares for a potential short-notice general election, the Commission is correct to raise how crucial it is for the UK Government to consider how to ensure British voters living overseas can confidently and conveniently cast their vote.”

The AEA said the Electoral Commission’s acknowledgement of the “challenging resource backdrop” for elections in the UK was important, adding that it was ready to work with the watchdog and the UK Government to address “decreasing availability of expertise in the sector”.

But it warned that the stretched capacity of specialist electoral suppliers and printers continued to be a pressing worry for it and its members.

The AEA said it strongly supported the Commission’s recommendation: “to simplify the legal process for challenging elections, particularly so that mistakes made by ROs can be rectified more quickly without recourse to the election petition process”.

The complexity and length of election counts can lead to honest mistakes, it said, and a quick and clear way to correct these should be available.

Peter Stanyon, AEA chief executive, said: “It is to Returning Officers’ and electoral administrators’ immense credit that they achieved what they did in May. Electoral teams have high standards, and the problems caused by outdated electoral law and prescribed processes need addressing urgently, as outlined by the Commission in this comprehensive and timely report.”