Nightmare challenge for voters

By Joe Churcher
Published May 21st 2004 in The Scotsman

A daunting electoral puzzle will face voters in parts of London on June 10 when they grapple with casting six votes on four different-coloured papers into three colour-coded ballot boxes.

Around 30,000 people in the capital are facing a Krypton Factor-style challenge involving four different voting systems which has caused a major headache for election chiefs in five town halls.

The added complexity in what is already a congested day of voting for all Londoners has been caused by seats on councils being vacated, forcing by-elections.

Those will be decided by using the traditional first-past-the-post method used for electing MPs to the House of Commons.

But the other polls on the day – for the Mayor of London, the capital’s Assembly and the European Parliament – are each being contested under different forms of proportional representation.

To choose who will be the capital’s next mayor, voters will select first and second choice candidates on a pink paper – under the Supplementary Vote system – and place them in an orange box.

The same receptacle will take the yellow and orange papers on which electors will opt for an individual to represent their local constituency on the GLA and a party they would most like to provide a further member from a list of approved candidates.

That election is conducted using the Additional Member System.

On the European Parliament paper, which is white, voters select either a party or an independent candidate under the Party List system and then place it in a white box.

That will leave a traditional black metal ballot box into which will go the grey voting slip on which, simply, electors will choose one person to represent them on their local council.

The five council seats up for election are spread right across the capital: Bensham Manor, Croydon; New River, Hackney; Lower Edmonton, Enfield; Lower Morden, Merton; and Chadwell Heath, Barking and Dagenham.

Stephen Judson, policy manager at independent elections watchdog the Electoral Commission said: “It’s certainly not straightforward and everybody is aware of the scope for confusion – both for the administrators who have to run the election and the voters themselves.”

He said town hall election chiefs had been put through “probably the most comprehensive training programme ever put in place” and the Commission was confident they would cope well.

Mr Judson said it was also possible to overstate the extent of the difficulty for ordinary voters who would receive “thorough advice in an impartial manner” at polling stations.

“The ballot papers they are having to complete are quite straightforward and have clear instructions on them. It is not necessary to understand the mechanics of the particular voting system to be able to cast your vote.”

Holding all the elections did have the “capacity for confusion”, he conceded, but had also been shown to help increase turnouts.”

In Scotland fears over the impact of using several different electoral systems led the Government to set up a commission to investigate the introduction of the single transferable vote for local government polls.

But Mr Judson said the Electoral Commission could not get involved in discussions of the merits of changing the systems used for elections unless asked by the Government.

The Government has a manifesto commitment to review the voting system and pledged that any moves to change the process for electing MPs would be put to a referendum.

As the body that would be in charge of such a referendum, the Commission had been seen to remain independent, he said.

The unprecedented proliferation of elections and voting systems has certainly created a lot of work for Croydon Council’s assistant head of democratic and legal services Lea Goddard.

With the by-election confirmed less than three weeks ago, his staff have had to work flat out to deal with a situation more complex than any he has experienced before.

Voters in Bensham Manor would be “inundated” with ballot papers and votes and many would need help to “get through the process unscathed”.

It is for that reason that the borough is to station an extra clerk in each of the ward’s six polling stations to help guide people through the task.