Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Lessons must be learned from the mistakes of May

The May Assembly election counts were plagued by lack of planning, poor communications and staff problems, says Seamus Magee

May 5 was a big day for voters in Northern Ireland. Not only were they voting for their Assembly members and local councillors, they could also take part in the first UK-wide referendum for 36 years.

The Electoral Commission today publishes a report on the Assembly election, while earlier this week it reported on the referendum.

This is the third time we have produced an independent report on the Northern Ireland Assembly election. We previously reported on the elections in 2003 and 2007 - both of which were standalone elections.

Overall, our new report finds that, while polling day was largely managed successfully, with 80% of voters reporting a positive experience, there were problems with completing the Assembly and referendum counts in a timely manner.

We recognise that planning and managing three polls on May 5 presented a major challenge to the Chief Electoral Officer and his colleagues in the Electoral Office.

Around 6,000 temporary staff had to be recruited and trained to work at the polls. In the weeks leading up to the elections, the public helpline handled around 28,000 calls and more than 17,000 additions or amendments were made to the electoral register.

In spite of these challenges, we have concluded that the Electoral Office had the capacity and funding to deliver two elections and a referendum on the same day and should be able to do so in future - provided there is effective planning and resources in place.

People want to know why it took so long before the first set of first-preference totals were announced and why the referendum total for Northern Ireland was not known until 2am on Saturday, May 7 - four hours after the results were known in Great Britain. The counts were characterised by insufficient planning, poor communications and there was no overall management plan as to how counts should be conducted.

This resulted in long delays in completing the verification of ballot papers before the count proper could start. In at least two count venues, the verification process took almost 12 hours to complete.

Other factors that contributed included the late issuing of guidance from the Chief Electoral Officer to his deputy returning officers, staff not turning up at some count venues, the poor quality of paperwork returned by some presiding officers, the suitability of some count venues and key staff being fatigued.

Lessons must be learned from this and our report makes around 30 recommendations to the UK Government and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. While some suggest amending or clarifying the law, the majority are administrative in nature and, when implemented, should improve the management of elections.

We have also committed, in our report, to producing a progress report this time next year on what has been done in addressing our recommendations. The Chief Electoral Officer has welcomed the findings of this report and we are pleased he has acted by setting up a large-scale review of how elections and counts will be managed in the future.

Our report has called on the UK Government to look at what can be done to improve accountability arrangements of the electoral process. One way this could be done is through introducing a performance standards framework, similar to that in Great Britain. This would enable us to assess the performance of the Chief Electoral Officer against standards and improve the delivery of electoral services.

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