The European parliament election that was never going to happen is now behind us, and we await the results which will emerge from Sunday evening once polls have closed across all member states. It is an anomaly for our politics to have to wait that long for the results, but it is not the only thing that is unusual about this election. They are delivered on a different, regional structure only used in Great Britain for this purpose; the voting and counting system used reflects this; and there are different processes that have to be completed to ensure people are properly registered and able to vote.
These are some of the reasons why we and the wider electoral community raised concerns with the government, with rising urgency in the first months of this year. While a general election follows a well-trodden path and can be delivered relatively comfortably – albeit not without considerable effort – within eight weeks, the same is not true of the European parliament elections. The ongoing delays to confirming the poll continued to escalate the risks.
We had contingency plans in place for these elections, which we scaled up as the date grew closer, including holding funding in reserve. We did this in the face of substantial criticism from some quarters of the public, media and politics, including government ministers. We continued to apply pressure and finally, on 1 April, the government confirmed that public funds could be used by returning officers to make preparations. We said at the time that this was an unprecedented level of uncertainty in a mature democracy. Only on 7 May – the date by which voters had to be registered to vote at the poll – did the government confirm that it would go ahead.
The pressure at a local level, as a result, has been substantial, further intensified by the short gap between this poll and local elections on 2 May, which would normally have been moved to take place on the same date. Booking polling stations, finding staff to run them, arranging the printing of millions of pieces of paper, issuing postal vote papers and other registration information in time.
Given this, it is an immense credit to the returning officers and other electoral staff across the country that they achieved what they did in the circumstances: a largely well-run election in the face of substantial challenges. Clearly, however, there were issues as risks materialised, most notably and regrettably the issues experienced by some citizens of other EU member states intending to vote.
There has to be a process to guard against people voting in two countries, to ensure fairness. The current process, aspects of which are specified in EU and UK law, is not new, and neither is the experience of people being found not to be correctly registered and turned away at polling stations. This doesn’t make it any less frustrating for individual voters or regrettable for those who champion our democratic system, but has been brought into tighter focus at a poll where tensions have been high.
The commission made the case for making this legal process easier for citizens following the last EU elections in 2014. However, improvements to the process are reliant on changes to electoral law. While contingency plans can be made for the delivery of an election under current legislation, no amount of preparation by us or by local officials could effect a change in these rules which requires the action of government and parliament. While it is understandable that no changes were made in the face of the government’s stern assurance that the UK would not participate in the election, it is deeply disappointing and in truth not good enough.
In the face of this, we and local administrators worked hard to manage within the current system, though it is unarguable that the very short notice from the government of the UK’s participation in these elections impacted significantly on the time available for awareness of this process among citizens, and for citizens to complete the process. Where normally, work would have begun on EU citizen processes from at least the very beginning of 2019, this activity could not start until April.
In the coming weeks and months, we will address this and other issues as part of our requirement to report on the conduct of the elections. There are clearly broader lessons to learn. We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon.
• Bob Posner is chief executive of the Electoral Commission