Observing elections to improve democracy
Twenty teams made up of 73 observers made up in teams of 2, 3 or 4, who were registered with the UK’s Electoral Commission, made 642 separate observations in 507 polling stations across the United Kingdom. We observed in 66 of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies.
Teams were deployed to all the English regions as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Observers came from around the world, including 10 member states of the European Union and member states of the OSCE (including Canada, The United States of America and Moldova). This international group increased the ranks of Democracy Volunteers to produce the largest electoral observation of polling stations in UK electoral history.
The Observers came from our pool of UK observers and were, for the first time, augmented by several dozen observers from abroad, some with extensive experience of observation and others who had some recent experience. We were assisted in recruitment of observers by colleagues at the OSCE/ODIHR and AEGEE.
Each observation was conducted in pairs to allow for objective observation and the observers then agreed their opinions of the electoral process before submitting data to the central team. However, in some of the larger polling stations, most notably in Scotland and Northern Ireland (some having six separate ballot boxes) three or more of the team were deployed. The survey was conducted online so data was collected, and could be checked, live.
The observations generally took between fifteen and thirty minutes per polling station as the observers were asked to ensure that they attempted to see the entire process, which included staff greeting electors on arrival at the polling station. This happened on every occasion.
The organisation of polling stations was generally well run across the UK, voters could clearly see how to access voting and staff were trained to manage the process.
Area of the Observation
South West: St. Ives, Truro and Falmouth, Camborne and Redruth, Plymouth – Sutton & Devonport, South West Devon, North Devon, Torridge and West Devon and Salisbury (8)
South East: Slough, Maidenhead, Windsor, Reading East, Reading West, Newbury, Romsey and Southampton North and New Forest East (8)
London: Putney, Wimbledon, Richmond Park, Croydon North, Croydon Central, Croydon South, Islington South and Finsbury, Islington North and Holborn and St. Pancras (9)
East Midlands: Leicester West, Leicester East, Leicester South and North East Derbyshire (4)
West Midlands: Coventry North East, Coventry South, Warwick and Leamington and Stratford-upon-Avon (4)
Eastern: Cambridge, Harlow, Herford and Stortford and Brentwood and Ongar (4)
North West: City of Chester, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Warrington South, Weaver Vale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Denton and Reddish and Stockport (7)
Yorkshire and the Humber: Sheffield Central, Sheffield Heeley and Sheffield South East (3)
North East: Darlington (1)
Wales: Wrexham and Alyn and Deeside (2)
Northern Ireland: Belfast West, Belfast North and South Antrim (3)
Scotland: North East Fife, Dunfermline & West Fife, Glenrothes, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Edinburgh South, Edinburgh East, Edinburgh North and Leith, Edinburgh South West, Edinburgh West, Dundee East, Dundee West, Angus and Perth and North Perthshire (13)
Access to voting was clear and despite the nature of the weather throughout polling day officials dealt well with the process. However, an awareness of the nature of observation, and even the existence of observers, seemed entirely new and the process by which they should deal with observers seemed unclear.
Although the teams were asked to survey extra issues than usual concerning party activity outside polling stations none of these seemed relevant to the final observation as the process was very good natured. Telling was sporadic, at best, and on all but a few occasions the electorate was not impeded in its access to the polling stations.
As before we did find significant levels of family voting, indeed this was observed in 18% of all polling stations in the UK. This should be considered a significant finding, whilst lower than the highest incidence we have seen in Northern Ireland in March 2017, at 43%, this still indicates that more than a sixth of all polling stations had occurrences. Rarely did staff attempt to prevent it. This was even identified in the most marginal constituencies we observed.
1. Councils should be given much greater information about election observers. We had a number of occurrences of accredited observers being limited or excluded from polling stations. The checking and recording of accreditation was unsystematic and haphazard and more formal processes should be maintained to maintain a more formal polling station log by presiding officers.
Checking accreditation and awareness of the role of observers was much more apparent at counting centres suggesting that senior electoral staff are aware of the regulations around observers but that the likelihood of the arrival of observers is not a clear part of the training that presiding officers receive.
2. The sealing of ballot boxes is a continuing concern to Democracy Volunteers as we continue to see unsealed, partly sealed and loose ballot boxes. The integrity of the ballot is fundamental and this should be considered a priority for electoral authorities.
Ballot boxes are not standardised and, as such, the method of sealing cannot always be clear. In the case of the use of cable ties this can often mean that the full complement of cable ties is not used and, at least in theory, the ballot box could be tampered with. Thus, we recommend that, following the observation in Edinburgh, other councils follow the practice that appears to have been adopted there. Each ballot box has uniquely coded cable ties which are clear to the voter, the polling station staff and any observers. This means there can be greater confidence in the security of the ballot box. We would recommend that this is adopted across the country.
3. ‘Family voting’ continues to be a significant concern for Democracy Volunteers. We observed it in 18% of all the polling stations across the UK. We recommend that signage, similar to that used in the Netherlands, which we attach in Appendix 1, should be used to make voters more aware about the secrecy of the ballot.
We do not believe that the majority of voters who are engaged in family voting are aware that it is a breach of the secret ballot, so additional signage in polling stations would go some way to ameliorating this.
The Full report can be downloaded below