198 observers registered by Democracy Volunteers with the Electoral Commission, as well as three observers who directly accredited themselves with the Commission, made up in teams of 2, made 1,042 separate observations of polling stations across the United Kingdom. We observed polling operations in 121 of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies.
Teams were deployed to all 9 of the English regions as well as in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Observers came from around the world, including most member states of the European Union and many member states of the OSCE. Observers came from 40 countries from 5 continents. This international group increased the ranks of Democracy Volunteers to produce the largest electoral observation of polling stations in UK electoral history. The observers were 52% male and 48% female. The team was supported by a core team of 8 experts and Long Term observers. 75% of all the observers are resident in the UK and came from our pool of UK observers. All observers were given training, a briefing, and an election day handbook ahead of deployment.
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. The survey was conducted online so data was collected, and could be checked, live by the core team.
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. This happened on every occasion. We were assisted in recruitment of observers by colleagues at AEGEE.
Area of the Observation (by Region/Nation)
Eastern: Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich North, Norwich South. (4)
East Midlands: Broxtowe, Erewash, Grantham & Stamford, Northampton North, Northampton South, Nottingham North, Nottingham South, Nottingham East, Rushcliffe. (9)
London: Kensington, Cities of London & Westminster, Bethnal Green & Bow, Poplar & Limehouse, Westminster North, Putney, Finchley and Golders Green, Battersea, Vauxhall, Chipping Barnet, Hendon, Islington North, Feltham and Heston, Islington South & Finsbury, Ilford South, Chingford and Woodford Green, (Walthamstow and Leyton & Wanstead, Count Only) (16/18)
North East: North West Durham, City of Durham, Middlesbrough, Stockton North, Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland. (6)
North West: Crewe & Nantwich, Bolton West, Bolton North East, Bolton South East, Tatton, Warrington North, Warrington South, Eddisbury, Westmorland & Lonsdale, Bury North, Bury South, Liverpool Wavertree, Liverpool Riverside, Liverpool Walton, Liverpool West Derby, Manchester Central, Manchester Gorton, Salford and Eccles, St Helens South & Whiston, Rochdale, Garston and Halewood, Weaver Vale, City of Chester. (22)
South East: Beaconsfield, Gillingham & Rainham, Canterbury, North Thanet, South Thanet, Dover, Oxford West and Abingdon, Milton Keynes North, Milton Keynes South, Isle of Wight, Aldershot, South West Surrey, Surrey Heath, Guildford, Watford, Woking, Wokingham, Windsor, Esher and Walton, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone & The Weald. (21)
South West: St Ives, Camborne & Redruth, Truro & Falmouth, South Swindon, North Swindon, Devizes and North Wiltshire. (7)
West Midlands: Solihull, Birningham Selly Oak, West Worcestershire, Meriden, Birningham Yardley, Kenilworth & Southam, Redditch, Warwick & Leamington, Coventry South, Coventry North East, Coventry North West. (11)
Yorkshire and the Humber: Calder Valley, Morley and Outwood, Colne Valley, Leeds Central, Leeds North West, Leeds West, Leeds East, Pudsey. (8)
Northern Ireland: North Down, East Belfast, South Belfast. (3)
Scotland: North East Fife, Stirling, Glasgow South West, Glasgow Central, Ochil and South Perthshire, Dunfermline & West Fife. (6)
Wales: Arfon, Aberconwy, Cardiff Central, Cardiff North, Cardiff South & Penarth, Cardiff West, Vale of Glamorgan, Ynys Mon/Anglesey. (8)
Despite the election being conducted in winter and with very short notice, it was, in the main, conducted well. However, as was identified by the core team’s meetings with interlocutors, as well as polling day findings, we do believe that there are some substantial ongoing issues with the conduct of UK elections that need improvement.
There are several areas in which we have key recommendations for the improvement of UK elections, and several where the improvement of the training for presiding officers and poll clerks would deliver a better election day experience and improve the credibility of the electoral process overall.
These recommendations focus around the areas which were observed, or which became apparent during our meetings with interlocutors. They are: Postal Voting; Voter Registration; Snap Elections; Modernisation and Voter Expectations; Signage; Voter Presentation at polling stations; Disabled Access; Observer ID checks and Recording of Observers; Staff on Duty; Sealing of Ballot Boxes; Political literature; ‘Family Voting’, and Mobile Phones/Cameras.
Based on our observations and discussions with interlocutors, many voters appeared to misunderstand the process for registration, application and return of postal votes. Tight election timelines compound this problem. This results in votes never arriving in time with the council or even with the voter if overseas. This was especially challenging during a period of higher than average postal activity. In previous general elections a notable number of postal ballots were never counted as they are adjudged to be incorrectly completed.
R1 We recommend a review of the postal voting processes, instructions and public education campaigns to support better outcomes for postal voters.
Large numbers of duplicate voter registrations during the election put a heavy strain on already busy election offices. In many cases, it was noted that voters did not, or could not, check online to see if they were already registered.
R2 We recommend that user-friendly, online registration ’look-up’ websites (“am I on the voters list?”) be readily accessible to voters.
Many critical election administration tasks take many months of planning and work in an attempt to ensure smooth and successful elections. When snap elections are called, these tasks must be compressed into weeks, rather than months. The sustained stress this puts on election administration is a very real risk to ensuring successful elections.
R3 We recommend that an extended writ period be considered for snap elections, to allow administrators sufficient time to deliver the best possible elections.
Modernisation and voter expectations
Several interlocutors highlighted the rapidly increasing volume of electronic voter enquiries and expectations of rapid responses. During the election period, the sheer volume of voter emails often strained existing resources. Many interlocutors highlighted their recent success leveraging the government Notify communication tool.
R4 We recommend that this communication resource be further developed and explored by administration stakeholders, creating opportunities to share experiences and best practices.
The signing of polling stations, whilst generally maintained to a good standard and regularly checked by staff, is invariably paper-based and open to the elements and can be easily damaged or destroyed, especially in an election in mid-December. This can lead to even poorer signposting of polling stations and the required disabled access, which can be different in the same polling stations. Some councils have invested in more permanent signage, such as A-frames and we would encourage councils to invest in Polling Station signage and disabled access signage (which will be reused).
R5 We recommend that local returning officers compare the costs of a long term investment in more permanent signage rather than ordering new paper signage for each election.
Voter Arrival at Polling Stations
Many polling stations are now combined so that voters are presented with the possibility of attending one of several polling stations in the same building. Normally this is where two ballot boxes, for two separate polling districts, have been placed in the same polling station due to proximity. When there is more than one ballot box this can lead to confusion and consequent queuing as a result.
R6 We recommend that those polling stations where two or more ballot boxes are in operation should automatically be required to have a member of staff responsible for ‘triaging’ voters on arrival. This will allow for simpler access for voters.
We are increasingly concerned that disabled access is one of the primary problems we identify during polling day. Following recent legal decisions concerning how blind and partially sighted voters have limited, if any, access to a secret ballot, we welcome the review that Electoral Commission is conducting concerning disabled access. However, we are also aware that legislation is already in place that should make this the current custom and practice. We believe it is unacceptable that 1 in 6 polling stations is either unsuitable for disabled voters or challenging.
R7 Each council (returning officer) should physically review all polling stations in advance of each election and report any issues concerning disabled access formally. These should be put in the public domain, whether on the council’s website or on the polling card issued to each voter telling them any issues concerning disabled access.
R8 We believe that the challenges caused to some disabled voters could be alleviated by introducing a form of ‘advanced voting’ or ‘home voting’ where either voters can attend a central polling station for their district/council area and vote in advance of the election, in the knowledge that this building is accessible, or they should offer the chance to be pre-registered as needing a ‘home vote’ and the ballot box, and the necessary equipment to vote, would be taken around to these voters on polling day. We recommend the Government should legislate to introduce ‘advanced voting’ and ‘home voting’ as options for disabled voters.
The role of observers, observer ID checks and recording of observers
Over the past few years more and more individuals and groups have sought to become registered as accredited observers for elections. Because of the high profile nature of recent elections this might be associated with this interest but we also believe that, as election observation becomes more normalised as part of the electoral landscape, this aspect of elections should be recognised by both those that accredit them, the Electoral Commission, and those that receive them, election day officials.
Whilst not directly associated with our observation we are aware that despite the OSCE/ODIHR deploying a Needs Assessment Mission to the UK ahead of the 2019 general election, which recommended that an Expert Mission be deployed no such mission was deployed because of financial and staffing limitations. This means that the formal international stakeholder, which the Electoral Commission responds to, had no oversight of the election, no recommendations to provide and none which the Electoral Commission is required to implement or the Government to legislate for. As such we recommend that the Electoral Commission, and other bodies responsible for the oversight and conduct of elections understand the increasing importance of domestic election observation to improve elections independently.
R9 We recommend that the Electoral Commission holds regular feedback sessions with observer groups to discuss and prioritise those areas where it can influence electoral authorities to improve elections locally.
R10 Following the 2018 review of election observation in the UK and increased number of those seeking accreditation, the Electoral Commission should invest greater resources, when applicable, in ensuring the process works effectively and securely.
R11 All observers should have their ID checked on arrival at polling stations and this should be recorded officially. This would allow for any dispute to be properly logged as rarely are records of observers kept accurately, meaning there is little evidence of their attendance or the timing thereof.
Staff on Duty
Whilst many polling stations do have the required number of polling staff available to conduct the election within the legal framework we do believe that some challenges are faced by staff during busy times which prevents them from keeping a close eye on all aspects of polling.
R12 We recommend in large, busy or multiple polling stations that a minimum of three staff be on duty, one of whom is responsible for greeting voters, checking polling booths and preventing voters from activities outside the legal framework (see family voting recommendations).
Sealing of Ballot Boxes
When drafting the recommendations, we have found it difficult to make any on this aspect of polling day, as it is mandatory that a ballot box is sealed at 7am by the presiding officer and not unsealed until delivered to the central count after 10pm. Whilst there is no suggestion that any foul play took place in the fifteen instances where boxes were unsealed, this failure is something that should be improved. Any such failure in other instances would be considered to undermine the integrity of the election. Making a recommendation that a ballot box is sealed is therefore pointless but we would make some recommendations on how this is reported and how the seal can be made clear to voters. In the case of some ballot boxes, because of their design, it is not possible for the voter, or election observer, to assess if a box is in fact sealed.
R13 If, on arrival at the central count a ballot box is discovered to be incorrectly sealed or unsealed this should be immediately made known to election agents and candidates so that they are aware of this problem.
R14 This box should then be verified and checked by the returning officer to check that no foul play has occurred, and those observing should be told the turnout for that one box, so it can be checked against the final result.
R15 In 2017, we recommended that coded cable ties should be introduced as the norm by returning officers so that these coded ties are those placed on the ballot box at the opening of poll and removed at the closure of poll. These numbers should be displayed clearly and recorded clearly for the public, parties and observers to check independently.
R16 Party agents should be issued with these codes so that they can independently check that codes issued to each polling station match those that are delivered to the count after 10pm.
Our observer teams regularly encounter political material in polling stations. This can take a number of forms ranging from literature issued to voters on entering the polling stations by political parties to signage that advertises local MPs or councillors’ surgeries which are often held in the same buildings as voting.
R17 As part of polling day setup we would recommend that presiding officers are reminded that political activity, even in the form of surgery advertising, is to be discouraged. Any permanent signage should be covered during polling day. 
Family voting continues to be biggest challenge to polling day integrity. Whilst other aspects of the polling process can be ameliorated by staff ensuring equipment is secure, many presiding officers either do not see family voting occurrences as they are busy dealing with other voters in the queue, or they see the offence but do not interrupt the activity, as they should. Family voting occurs when two people enter a polling booth together, collude or oversee the casting of another’s vote. It is a clear violation of the secret ballot and something which is an offence. However, it persists in being either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable. We have observed some areas where there are active attempts to reduce this activity by stationing staff, even police, to prevent it.
Family voting is often also asserted as happening in specific communities but the evidence of our observation is that it happens across communities and geographies but is disproportionately men guiding/overseeing women how to vote, though this is by no means the only form it takes.
R18 As part of presiding officer training before polling day, polling staff should be trained on how to spot family voting and their responsibility to prevent it.
R19 Signage should be produced, and possibly piloted, similar to that for cameras and phones in polling stations to show that using the same polling booth is illegal. (see Appendix B).
Mobile Phones and Cameras
Despite most polling stations displaying signage that mobile phones should not be used whilst in the polling station we observed several occasions on polling day when voters would either take calls whilst in the polling station or even, on two occasions, be on calls on arrival and continue their conversations throughout their entire time in the polling station. These two occasions were not prevented by the polling staff.
We have also seen further evidence of voters taking photos of their ballot papers. Whilst on several occasions this was a selfie from a first time voter, in some cases, as we have reported on before, this was of voters taking a photo of their ballot whilst in the booth. In some cases, presiding officers interceded, in others they did not.
R20 Signage should be more prominent that telephones should not be used whilst in polling stations.
R21 Signage should be developed to discourage the use of phone cameras in polling stations.
 This recommendation was recently adopted by the Dutch Government for public buildings.