Election 2015 England

Election 2015: How will polling station chaos of 2010 be avoided?

Queues outside polling station in Sheffield in 2010
Image caption An estimated 480 people were unable to vote in the 2010 general election in Sheffield

Hundreds of people were unable to cast their votes at the last general election as what the Electoral Commission described as Britain's "Victorian" voting system reached "breaking point".

On 6 May 2010, chaos broke out at 27 polling stations in 16 English constituencies.

Long queues, in part caused by an 2.55m upsurge in voting figures from 2005, meant hundreds were unable to cast their ballots before the 22.00 deadline.

An estimated 1,200 voters were turned away from polling stations in towns and cities including Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Weybridge.


BBC News Timeliner: Polling tales

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Up and down the UK there are a number of unusual polling stations, and some unusual voter behaviour too, as a quick delve into the BBC archives displays.

Watch video from the vaults on the BBC News Timeliner


That figure, based on estimates from returning officers, did not take into account people who were put off voting altogether by the queues.

"We can't get in to vote and we feel scandalised by this," said a frustrated voter in Sheffield Hallam, where about 340 people were turned away resulting in a protest by about 100 students and the arrival of police officers.

"This could make the difference between somebody losing or winning," came the angry cry from one woman in Manchester Withington, where an estimated 300 people were shut out.

In fact, Liberal Democrat John Leech took Manchester Withington by a majority of 1,850 and Nick Clegg won the Sheffield Hallam seat by more than 15,000 votes.

But returning officers in both cities returned all or part of their fees and admitted that "we got it wrong".

In 2013, following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, the legislation underpinning elections was changed to allow people "in the polling station, or in a queue outside the polling station" at the time the polls close to vote.


Image copyright Other
Image caption The laws surrounding people's right to vote after the polls close were changed in 2013

In a report into the chaotic scenes, the Electoral Commission, which works to support well-run elections in the UK, said that while the problems were "not widespread...some voters were badly let down", citing "poor planning, the use of unsuitable buildings, inadequate staffing arrangements and the failure of contingency plans".

It said: "Everyone involved in running elections must make sure it never happens again."

In Manchester, the report found many of the polling stations in use had reported problems and additional resources were deployed to meet demand.

However, at Ladybarn Community Centre and Didsbury United Reform Church support was not requested "until it was too late", resulting in about 200 and 100 voters being turned away respectively.

Image caption One voter in Manchester said the problems could "make the difference between somebody losing or winning"

Manchester City Council said: "To put this in context, this only occurred at two out of the city's 269 polling stations but we are absolutely clear that the fact that some voters who turned up at polling stations couldn't vote was unacceptable.

"We supported the Electoral Commission's call for a change in the law to allow voters who are in polling station queues by 10pm to be issued with ballot papers and welcome the fact that the law has now been changed to prevent a reoccurrence of these issues."

Image caption Police were called to a polling station in Ranmoor, Sheffield, to speak to crowds of angry voters
Image caption Angry scenes erupted in Sheffield and resulted in a protest by about 100 students

Sheffield City Council's chief executive John Mothersole, who gave up his £20,000 returning officer fee, agreed that the events of 6 May were "unacceptable".

As well as those shut out in Sheffield Hallam, a further 140 people were unable to vote in Sheffield Heeley and Penistone and Stocksbridge.

He said: "We carried out a thorough review of the voting procedures in time for the 2011 local elections following the problems experienced at the 2010 General Election.

"Additional polling stations were added in specific areas where the pressure was greatest, including two new polling stations at the Endcliffe Student Village.

"We have also increased the number of staff at many of the polling stations, improved staff training, and we have introduced a system of polling station inspectors to identify early and address any issues that do arise.

"We are confident that everyone who wishes to vote in the general and local elections on 7 May will be able to do so, but we would still encourage people to vote as early as possible in the day and not leave it until the last minute."

Image caption Sheffield City Council's chief executive John Mothersole gave up his returning officer fee after problems in the city

In Islington North it was estimated that 36 electors may have been unable to vote at St John Highbury Vale Primary School, though the council insisted that "nothing went wrong" in 2010.

A spokesman for Islington Council said: "The law at that time meant that ballot papers could not be issued after 10pm. At one polling station there were some people in a queue at 10pm and they were therefore not able to vote."

However, he said following the change to voting legislation the council had "taken steps to ensure that numbers of staff are increased at polling stations where we anticipate turnout may be high", adding that "guidelines on queue management in line with the change in law have been drawn up for presiding officers".

Image copyright Google
Image caption It was estimated that about 36 electors were unable to vote at St John Highbury Vale Primary School, in Islington

Long queues outside St Paul's Church in Birmingham's Ladywood constituency resulted in about 100 people being turned away, but not before the police were called to disperse the crowd.

Speaking at the time, Harriet Commander said she had gone to the church twice to cast her vote.

"We waited in the queue until 10pm and we just got in to the polling station and they closed the ballot boxes and we were not allowed to vote," she said.

"Everyone was pretty angry. There was quite a lot of shouting and people were getting pretty upset so the people in charge phoned up the police."

Image copyright Stephen Richards/Geograph
Image caption Police were called to disperse crowds at St Paul's in Birmingham where about 100 people were unable to vote

A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Council said that following the 2010 election it had split the electorate at the St Paul's polling station and created a new polling district with an additional polling station.

She said staff had been briefed on the changes in the legislation and were required to advise elections offices of any potential issues as soon as they arise.

Similarly, Elmbridge Borough Council undertook a review of polling districts after about 34 voters were left unable to vote at Oatlands County Infant School in Weybridge.

A council spokeswoman said: "The ratio of polling station staff to electors was based on Electoral Commission Guidance and exceeded the minimums by some margin.

"The main contributory factors to the queues can be summarised by an unprecedented high turnout at this Polling Place; a combined election taking time to issue each voter with potentially three ballot papers; together with a relatively high number of voters arriving at the Polling Station towards the close of poll."

She said it had also introduce "polling station monitors" since 2010 to "enhance effective management of an election".

In the Liverpool Wavertree constituency some voters were forced to wait to vote after a number of polling stations ran out of ballot papers, though Liverpool Council said nobody lost their chance to vote as additional papers were supplied.

It is estimated, however, that about 20 people were unable to vote as a result of queuing.

A council spokesman said: "We are issuing all polling stations with enough ballot papers to cover 100% of the electorate and now anybody who is in the queue to cast their vote by 10pm will be allowed to do so.

"All staff at polling stations have been giving training to ensure they understand this requirement."

While hundreds were shut out, other councils allowed those who arrived at the polling station before 10pm but were yet to cast their vote to have their say.

In Newcastle-under-Lyme the Electoral Commission report said about 80 people were still queuing outside the polling station at St Chad's Church in Chesterton when the polls closed.

However, it said the returning officer "decided to allow those who had arrived at the polling station before 10pm to be issued with a ballot paper and allowed to vote".

A spokeswoman for Newcastle-under-Lyme council said the "most unusual" situation was the result of a large number of people arriving at 9.15pm.

She said: "We took a pragmatic approach to make sure that all the people who were at the station before the 10pm deadline were registered and allowed to vote."

She added that since 2010 the council had increased the number of polling booths by four and drafted in three extra staff at the St Chad's polling station.

Similarly in the Milton Keynes North constituency about 100 electors were still waiting to vote at the Wolverton polling station at 10pm

The Electoral Commission report said that "Following concerns about the safety staff the (Acting) returning officer stopped the queue outside and anyone ahead of that point was allowed to vote. The report said nobody was prevented from voting.

A Milton Keynes council spokesman said the problem had been due to an "unexpected influx of voters at the last minute".

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