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Election officers urge “root and branch” review of electoral system

Election officers were “pushed to the absolute limit” by this year’s glut of polls, the Association of Electoral Administrators has said in a report.

This covered the period of local elections last May and the referendum on European Union membership in June, both conducted on new registers under the individual electoral registration system.

The report said election administrators would recall 2016 “as the year that the system came closer to collapse than ever before”.

The combination of May and June polls left administrators “stretched beyond belief” as they struggled to run multiple local polls and the referendum back to back, the AEA said.

This was complicated by the 48-hour extension to the registration deadline for the referendum.

The AEA warned that the system would be unable to cope with further burdens unless it were reformed.

Chief executive John Turner said: “What is required is a root and branch review of the whole arrangements for registration and the conduct of elections rather than more adjustment and change to a system so deeply rooted in the 19th century.

“Many of the problems that currently exist and which surfaced again at this year’s elections are because of the historic nature of the systems in place and which are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose.”

The AEA said the Government should implement the Law Commission’s recommendations for a single Electoral Administration Act setting out the high-level framework governing electoral registration, elections and referendums in the UK, with the operational detail of registration, absent voting, and elections contained in secondary legislation.

It should also publish an assessment of the risks associated with any proposed changes to legislation before making any changes.

The Cabinet Office should ensure that administration expenses claims submitted are audited and settled within the same financial year, the AEA said.

It also called for staff to be exempt from auto-enrolment for pensions when they were working on elections and referendums, as opposed to their normal duties, to avoid creating a liability for election administrators.

The AEA sounded the alarm over the multiple polls due on 7 May 2020, when a UK Parliamentary general election, police and crime commissioner elections and those for numerous local authorities and elected mayors are due to coincide. It called on the Government to consider changing the date of some of the polls involved.

Mark Smulian