A team of 6 observers registered with, and accredited by, the UK’s Electoral Commission made 45 separate observations across the 55 different polling stations in the Newport West Parliamentary Constituency. This constituted approximately 82% percent of the polling stations in the area.
Each observation was conducted in pairs to allow for objective observation following which the two observers agreed their opinions of the electoral process before submitting data to the central team. The survey was conducted online so data was collected, and could be checked, live.
The observations generally took between thirty and forty-five 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.
Each team of observers was contacted throughout the day by the central team to ensure that observations were as uniform as possible.
The organisation of polling stations was generally very well run across the council area, voters could clearly see how to access voting and staff were trained to manage the process.
This was generally a well-run election. Presiding officers and poll clerks were generally very welcoming and friendly to the observer groups and we would like to thank all those that helped in our work.
As with several recent elections that Democracy Volunteers have observed, we continue to be concerned about the levels of ‘family voting’ at polling stations. Although the numbers were lower than we have seen in other elections there persists in being a lack of awareness amongst the public and staff alike, that family voting should be prevented and when seen it should be interrupted. On several occasions we even observed staff who observed the practice but, despite this, did not interrupt it.
Our observer team saw ‘family voting’ in 31% of the polling stations attended which, bearing in mind the team records all the voters who attend polling stations, means that 8.5% of all the voters who attended polling stations were involved in this practice.
We would recommend that officers, and the presiding officers, take time to be aware of this and intercede when they see it. Evidence, as provided by the OSCE/ODIHR, suggests that this practice most affects women voters as the secrecy of their ballot is restricted.
Following our initial preliminary statement, issued on April 4th, we have been in correspondence with the Returning Officer for the parliamentary by-election as well as attending a meeting with representatives of the Electoral Commission at their offices in London.
Whilst we do not blame the polling staff for a lack of awareness of the existence, and the activities, of election observers we do feel that this by-election highlights the ongoing issues about accredited observation in the UK. We are now aware that, despite having the correct accreditation as issued by the responsible body (the Electoral Commission) a combination of out-of-date information being available, and being issued, was the cause of some of the initial access issues during polling day. We would encourage councils to maintain up-to-date awareness of the rights and privileges of observers, and how they function within the electoral process. Although, we are conscious that legislation and guidance do change we are also aware that in 2018 a largescale review of election observation was conducted by the Electoral Commission, and that whilst those changes (such as the form of accreditation) have been updated, some of the guidance issued, and/or available to councils, is not as up-to-date. This created and has the potential to create difficult and challenging contexts for observers who are conducting their duties legally.
If observation is to be an accepted aspect of the UK’s electoral landscape, as agreed in law and by international obligations, it seems odd that awareness of it is so limited and even challenged.
Some polling stations were not suitable in the Newport West by-election. Whilst many were accessible as they are public buildings, the provision of ‘portacabins’ made access very difficult for those with mobility disabilities and general mobility issues.
This was generally the case in all of the portacabins which made access extremely challenging for some elderly voters who, on occasion, needed extensive assistance from friends and family and the polling staff. This was not acceptable and led to a number almost becoming injured due to the nature of the step access and poorly utilised (if they were even present) ramps for access.
R1. We continue to encourage both national and local election bodies to use strategies to discourage ‘family voting’ in polling stations. This could be done by two methods. Firstly, polling staff should receive, as part of their training, advice on how to deal with spotting and discouraging the practice. This should also be seen as a national problem which needs attention by the production of polling station signage that would help to influence those who are unaware it is unacceptable.
R2. We encourage all election bodies to be aware of the current legislation and guidance on the rights and responsibilities of election observers. We would also remind the Electoral Commission, ahead of the European Elections, that up-to-date advice should be issued to returning officers and that this should also be available to polling staff on election day.
R3. We would encourage Newport’s election authorities to assess if it is possible to have more accessible polling arrangements other than the portacabins that were used in some areas during the by-election. Whilst we did not observe any accidents we believe that some of the polling stations were very difficult to access for the mobility impaired if not, in some cases, even impossible.