Barnet Returning Officer faces financial penalty after polling blunder means voters wrongly turned away

For a good few years Barnet Council had rather a reputation for unusual interpretations of election law, with Liberal Democrat agents or campaign managers expecting to have to quote legislation at the council in the hope of getting it to follow the same rules as other London boroughs. And then there was 2010.

Such history was brought to mind again today by Barnet’s spectacular failure in the London elections – failing to provide accurate lists of voters for the staff to use at polling stations:

Barnet Council has apologised to anyone who was unable to vote because their name was missing from the poll list.

It confirmed all 155 polling stations had been affected but said staff now had accurate registers…

In a sign of how extensive the problems were, staff at one station said that of the first 30 voters to show up, only three were on the register. The rest were told to come back later. [BBC]

That’s quite some error and raises obvious questions about what checking procedures the Returning Officer did – or didn’t – have in place to ensure that such lists were right.

The wrong lists were in place from 7am until no later than 10:30am. That is three and a half hours out of the 15 hours for which polling stations are open, though not the busiest three and a half hours. If the election results are very close, this could lead to some interesting legal arguments.

In an attempt to salvage something from this, the council has also advised people about the ability to apply for an emergency proxy vote up until 5pm on polling day. There are very strict rules for such emergency applications, but one of the criteria is, to quote the Electoral Commission:

If you are unable to go to your polling station due to your occupation, service or employment, and you only become aware of that fact after 5pm, six working days before the poll.

It’s a fine legal argument to make that voters only discovered when they turned up that they couldn’t vote at the time they wanted, and so if they then had to be at work and couldn’t vote later that they therefore fall within this category. It is, to be fair, a well intentioned argument as this may have rescued the ability to vote for some people.

One thing to note: one of my regular election law bugbears about Returning Officers always being paid in full regardless of their performance was finally changed under the last Coalition government (one of the other small electoral reforms that Nick Clegg did successfully steer through in his constitutional reform brief).

So it’ll be up to the Electoral Commission to evaluate the Returning Officer’s performance and make recommendations.

Last year the Tower Hamlet’s Returning Officer had a financial penalty agreed for mistakes made in running the 2014 elections. For the 2015 general election, 29 returning officers had their pay also in the firing line for mistakes made but final decisions have still (!) not yet been made as the Electoral Commission was waiting for the conclusion of all election petitions before making recommendations.

It’s certainly looking very likely that the Barnet Returning Officer will, as with Tower Hamlets, face a financial penalty for making a serious mistake.


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