I watched the results of the November 3 election with increasing puzzlement. Counting ballots received after polling day? The Associated Press calling the result in Arizona before all the votes were counted? Very odd. I fought six Parliamentary elections in the UK and served as a Member of Parliament for eleven years. Win or lose, I never had any reason to doubt the result in my constituency, and neither did any of my colleagues in theirs. It is worth exploring the reasons that the UK’s system inspires such confidence.
Let’s start with registering to vote. That is now the individual’s responsibility (instead of an annual form sent to every household alone). It is easy to register. That can be done online in five minutes by giving your name, address, date of birth, and National Insurance number (the UK version of the U.S. social security number). Registration can also be done by filling in a form and sending it to the electoral registration office in one’s district. Once registered, you remain on the register in that district as long as you are alive and resident in that local authority. You can check whether or not you are actually on the register at the local library, by contacting the local electoral registration office, or perhaps in the future through a look-up facility to avoid duplicate applications, as the UK Electoral Commission proposes. It is possible to change details; for example, if you move house or if you change your name on marriage. You can register to vote at the age of 16, but you cannot vote until you are 18. But a complete registration application with all the required information must be made before midnight 12 working days before polling day. No same day registrations. It is extremely unlikely that anyone born in 1823 would still be on the register anywhere in the UK, like the alleged Detroit voter. British citizens (by virtue of birth or birth of parents in the UK), Irish citizens, and citizens of certain Commonwealth countries are all entitled to vote. One significant difference, which surprises most Americans, is that you do not register with a particular Party affiliation. Many in the UK would regard this as an invasion of privacy. But then we do not have primaries either. Candidates are selected by local Party members, presented to the electorate, and then it is up to the electorate as to whether or not the Party’s candidate gets elected to Parliament.
The responsibility for keeping the register up-to-date lies with the electoral registration officer (ERO), a senior local civil servant, a permanent employee of the local authority. The ERO has not only to ensure that the register is updated annually but also on a monthly basis. That means managing amendments, reviews, objections, and deletions throughout the year. The ERO is also expected to be proactive, engaging with schools to encourage 16-year-olds to register, making sure that residents in care homes vote, and visiting care homes to ensure residents are registered to vote and to remove those who have died. The ERO then undertakes an annual canvass. This includes two written or telephone communications with each property with a form to fill in for the recipients to return and register in this way. If there is no response, then a personal contact by telephone or a household visit is made. Obviously, local authorities have to make the resources available for this process, plus funding from the central government. The canvass must be delivered to the UK Cabinet Office for data matching to help ensure accuracy, as well as to the Electoral Commission, which also checks the registers for accuracy. The revised register must be published by December 1 each year. By March 2020, there were 47.6 million people registered to vote in Parliamentary elections, the highest number ever recorded, with an 89% accuracy rate. The number has continued to increase over the last two years. The Electoral Commission is an independent body with a wide remit over the conduct of all aspects of conducting an election. It is there to promote public confidence and participation in the UK’s democratic processes and to ensure their integrity.
The conduct of the poll is pretty well organized in my experience. As candidates, we have the right to check on polling stations and to encourage people to vote, often using load speaker vans or knocking on the doors of our supporters to encourage them to actually vote. The polling stations are open from 7 am to 10 pm and are usually located in schools, village halls, and community centers clearly labelled as polling stations. It is unlikely that anyone will have to travel very far to vote, disabled access must be available, and there is assistance for those who need it. People can vote by post or by proxy, but they must apply to do so eleven days before polling day. The applications must be made in advance and checked for identification including signatures and the date of birth. Postal votes are sent out two weeks before polling day and must be returned by 10 pm on polling day (you can hand deliver your postal vote at a polling station if you forget to post it). Any votes received after that time will not be counted. Postmarks will not suffice. These votes must be opened in the presence of all candidates and their agents, who can check the postal vote but cannot see the vote cast as the ballot papers must be kept face down. Candidates have to be given at least 48 hours’ notice of a vote opening session. All postal ballots have to be kept securely until the count. There are many very detailed rules about the printing and delivery of postal ballots as well as those used on polling day. It’s still paper-based in the UK. EROs who do not carry out all of the correct procedures can be fined by the Commission, who also have oversight of all the election procedures. A record of postal votes is made so that you cannot vote by post and then turn up at the polling station to vote again.
Candidates and their agents can also call in on polling stations to make sure that it is properly run with two clerks and a presiding officer in place. The polls close at 10 pm promptly and then the staff seal the boxes and transport them to the central count for the constituency. The candidates’ agents, and their “counting agents,” who have already been notified to the Returning Officer (RO) five days in advance all enter the count. Each ballot box has a particular number and the RO checks each and records that. Sometimes a ballot box takes a long time to arrive, due to traffic delays. Nerve-racking. The count cannot begin until all the boxes have been checked. Then the verification of the ballots takes place, which involves comparing the total number of votes cast with the number of votes accounted for at each polling station. The RO prepares a statement showing the number of ballot boxes received against the number expected and shows it to all candidates. No one is allowed to enter the count once the process begins or to leave the count until it is all over.
The ballots from the boxes are mixed up to preserve the secrecy of the ballot. Each candidate together with their agents and counting agents stand behind those counting to check that the votes are placed in the correct line of votes for each candidate. They can challenge a ballot which has been placed in the wrong line or if it is a spoilt ballot by, for example, voting for all the candidates or as one voter I know regularly writes, “none of the above.” Counting agents, candidates and their agents are never excluded from the count. They have the legal right to be there, and I cannot imagine that ever happening in the UK. Watching the growth of each line of candidates, especially your own and that of your nearest rival, together with your party members is almost the worst part of the evening. It is often quite clear who has won just by looking at the length of the lines of votes. But the RO calls all the candidates together and shares the result with them and also agrees the number of spoilt ballots. At this point, the candidate or their agent can call for a recount, and if the RO agrees, the ballots are all muddled up again and the recount begins immediately. There might be more than one recount, but the count usually goes on until agreement is reached. It is only then that the RO announces the votes cast in strict alphabetical order, but it is obvious who has won when the cheers go up for one of the candidates. This is the RO’s moment of glory. That announcement is the focus of attention for the cameras, especially for a well-known MP or a seat which one of the main parties was expected to win but lost.
No one else can announce the result of the election in any constituency except the RO. The media are not ever allowed to announce the result in any particular constituency, and certainly not before all the votes are counted. They are only allowed to predict the results based on exit polls, and then only after all the polls have closed. I am always surprised that, given the time differences in the USA, the results of exit polls in one part of the country are allowed before the polls are closed in all states. The media announcing the result according to such polls may be badly wrong, but at any rate, they can discourage people from voting if they think that their vote is wasted because the other party has won.
I have summarized very detailed rules for every aspect of registration, the conduct of the poll on polling day, and the count. I have focused on the key features, but the myriad of detailed rules all have their part to play in ensuring elections which are noted for low rates of fraud.