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electoral problems

Brexit voting fears fall flat but electoral problems remain

Published on: 13 September 2016

Fears about problems with the Brexit vote were largely unfounded – but endemic concerns about the electoral system still remain, according to experts at the Universities of East Anglia and Newcastle.

A new report by Dr Toby James of the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Dr Alistair Clark of Newcastle University shows that with a few, relatively minor exceptions, the European Union referendum vote went off without a hitch, despite concerns that the poll could be rigged, voters might face intimidation or problems could arise with the electoral machinery.

Nonetheless, Dr James and Dr Clark said underlying problems with Britain’s electoral machinery – including, crucially, voter registration – were glimpsed in the run-up to and on 23 June.

Their findings form a report, ‘An Evaluation of Electoral Administration at the EU Referendum,’ prepared for the Electoral Commission. The findings will be shared with parliamentarians when the Commission presents its EU Referendum report today. 

Eight million eligible British voters are missing from the register

Dr James, a senior lecturer in British and comparative politics in UEA’s School of Politics, said: “The focus on the possibility of fraud prior to the referendum provided a smokescreen to divert attention from the very real problem of voter registration.

“Research estimates that some 8 million eligible British voters are missing from the register, with large disparities in registration rates by age, ethnicity and socio-economic statuses.

“Even though the electoral register expanded by 3 million new registrations ahead of the vote, there was widespread confusion that meant many people still didn’t successfully register and were turned away at polling stations on June 23.  

“Some people who believed they were registered had their names removed in December 2015, under the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration. Others registered again in order to play it safe – which resulted in electoral officials being swamped by duplicate registrations.”

A clear link between resources and quality

When the registration system crashed on the night of the deadline, the resulting strain on electoral officials caused additional problems for already stretched workers. Local government spending cuts have been blamed for officials feeling the pressure, and the report found that nearly half of local authorities claim they have insufficient funds to maintain the electoral register.

Overall, however, the report found that the Chief Counting Officer, the Electoral Commission and electoral officials across the UK managed the referendum well.

Key points included:

  • The Count went overwhelmingly smoothly in large part because of planned rehearsals.
  • There were very few suspected cases of electoral fraud, although pressures from campaigners that pens should be used caused some disruption in some polling stations.
  • Some challenging business processes involved in postal voting and overseas voting place a strain on local authorities. Some overseas citizens may not have not been able to cast their votes or have them counted because of the tight timescales involved with registration and posting ballot papers through the international mail system. There were also concerns that the proxy voting process was open to vulnerabilities.
  • There were virtually no problems with electoral fraud and very limited cases of voter intimidation, despite concerns in advance of the referendum.
  • Electoral officials often reported a low level of understanding of the electoral procedures amongst some campaigners who were new to the electoral process.  

Dr Clark of Newcastle University said: “Evidence has shown a clear link between the resources available to run elections on the ground and the quality of those elections. With resources being squeezed, the level of attention that any election problems receive, and the increasing tendency to hold different rounds of elections on the same day or in close succession, electoral administrators are under pressure like never before. This is particularly the case in high profile events like referendums. 

“As we saw in the EU referendum, it is a tribute to their professionalism that there are so few problems. In advance of the next general election in 2020, the government needs to carry out a full review of the UK’s electoral machinery to ensure it remains fit for purpose and is appropriately resourced for the challenges it faces.”

An Evaluation of Electoral Administration at the EU Referendum’ was published on September 13, 2016.


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