Democracy Volunteers deployed two teams to observe the national elections to the European Parliament in the UK and The Netherlands. A third team was deployed to the same elections in Belgium, which features in a separate, forthcoming report.
Because of the ongoing debate concerning the UK’s membership of the European Union a decision was made relatively late in the process to observe the elections in the UK. Plans were in place some months in advance to observe elections in both The Netherlands and Belgium. Polling day in the UK and The Netherlands was on Thursday 23rd May and on Sunday 26th May in Belgium. A separate final report will be issued for our Belgium observation.
All observations were 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. In the Netherlands the team of 4 observed 30 polling stations, all in South Holland. In Belgium the team of 8 observed 14 polling stations, and in the UK the team observed 166 polling stations, all of which were in England. These broke down as:
East Midlands 15
North East 16
North West 51
South East 18
South West 37
West Midlands 7
Yorkshire & Humber 4
CONCLUSIONS – UNITED KINGDOM
This was generally a very well-run election. Presiding officers and poll clerks were invariably very welcoming and friendly to the observer groups and we would like to thank all those that helped in our work.
We continue to believe that ‘family voting’ is the single biggest challenge to the credibility of voting in polling stations in the United Kingdom. It is a practice that means many women, elderly and young voters do not have access to a secret ballot – which is their right. As with several recent elections that Democracy Volunteers have observed, we continue to be concerned about the significant levels of ‘family voting’ at polling stations.
Our observer team saw ‘family voting’ in 25% of the polling stations attended which, bearing in mind the team records all the voters who attend polling stations, means that 6% of all the voters who were observed attending polling stations were involved in this practice.
The 6% of voters affected by family voting persists, apparently due to the lack of awareness amongst the public and staff alike. 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.
R1 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.
Limitations on EU Citizen Voting
A number of our observer teams identified, either through direct observation or from polling staff, that non-UK EU citizens had been turned away from voting at polling stations. In some cases, when voters showed the polling staff the correspondence they had had with the local council, they still were unable to vote and numerous eligible voters were disqualified from voting. This was a very unsatisfactory situation which arguably had a notable impact on the election.
In one case our observer team identified a tendered ballot being issued to a voter who was an EU voter, but it was not made clear that this would not be counted in the election.
R2 We would recommend that electoral registration should be uniform for every voter who is qualified to vote at an election.
R3 We believe that the use of tendered ballots should be phased out as they give the voter the false impression that their vote is being counted.
CONCLUSIONS – THE NETHERLANDS
This was generally an extremely well-run election. Presiding officers and poll clerks were invariably very welcoming and friendly to the observer groups and we would like to thank all those that helped in our work. We have recently issued a report to the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations concerning the March elections for the Provincial and Water Board elections. We would reiterate those recommendations to the Dutch government but also add two supplementary areas of work.
Time to Vote
Our team is presently working on a more formal academic paper concerning the time it takes for voters to be processed in elections. This will be published in due course. But, as before, we are concerned that voters often take a long time to vote in The Netherlands. A great deal of this time is due to the size of the ballot paper but we feel that the supporting evidence of how long voters take to vote should be understood as part of the Ministry’s plans to streamline voting.
Voters invariably took approximately sixty seconds to vote but the maximum we observed was 143 seconds. This time clearly leads to queueing for other voters as regularly there are only three polling booths available in a polling station. This backing up increases the possibility of ‘family voting’ as it may lead to voters entering polling booths together.
R1 We would reiterate our support for trials in The Netherlands to attempt different forms of ballot paper either along the planned pilot of the Norwegian system or the Finnish ballot system which we recommended following the March elections.
In some polling stations, mainly municipal buildings, the observer team saw what was arguably politically biased information. This took different forms: lists of party representatives on display and also pro-EU literature.
Whilst the former are often in place on a permanent basis they should be considered politically sensitive during polling day. The latter is perhaps understandable in the context of an election to the European Parliament but their being available does suggest an institutional bias in favour of the European Union. Although we take no position on this, we do feel that some parties do not take the same pro-EU position as others and the availability of political material in polling stations should be challenged.
R2 We would encourage the reminding of polling station staff to assess the presence of political material in polling stations and to remove it or cover it during election day.
 This is the time is takes from the moment they are given their ballot paper to the time the place it in the ballot box.