“Being the Returning Officer at the above election, I do hereby give notice…”

When one thinks of an election in the UK, this is the phrase that probably most readily springs to mind: “…being the Returning Officer at the above election, I do hereby give notice that the number of votes recorded for each candidate at the said election is as follows…”

Next comes the recitation of the tallies, followed by the candidates and their supporters indulging in various combinations of tears, cheers, hugs, boos, venomous glances, handshakes of varying degrees of sincerity; and then a speech by the victor. This usually thanks a number of people including the Returning Officer (RO); however, this shadowy actor in the drama has already left the centre stage, their brief moment in the sun forgotten. One thus might easily think that the RO was of little importance: just some junior official picked for no better reason than that they had a steady hand and a good speaking voice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The RO is in many ways the most important actor in the whole election drama. There can be two candidates or twenty; any number of them could effectively give up the fight through disgrace or disenchantment during the campaign; some may know they have no hope at all and perhaps not even turn up for the count. The electoral turnout can be just about everybody or virtually no one. The campaign might be conducted in a glare of media scrutiny or with complete indifference. Remove the RO, however, and nothing can happen at all. Never mind that the result can’t be announced – there’ll be no election notices, no candidates, no ballot papers, no polling stations and no postal votes. The contest couldn’t take place. The RO is the one vital part of the process.

The RO at a local election is generally the CEO of the authority in question. On 27 March, I had a chat with WBC’s CEO (and RO) Nigel Lynn who started by giving me a few statistics. The electorate in the district is 120,286 (though, sadly, not all of these will vote). 132 polling stations in 99 locations need to be set up and 390 people are needed to staff these on 4 May. 22,069 people have, so far, opted to vote by post, which presents its own separate problems. The day after the election, 140 people are needed for the count.

Nigel Lynn has been an RO many times before (though never in West Berkshire) so I asked if he could recall any cases where, despite every plan, something went wrong.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “On one occasion a polling station was being staffed by a family, mother, father and daughter. The night before they’d had a domestic emergency and, for whatever reason, the message that they couldn’t turn up never got through. About half an hour after the station should have opened, we started getting people calling up…”

I imagine you had back-up teams in place? I suggested. “We did,” he said, “and we got them down there as soon as possible. Of course, you never know how many such substitutes you might need. Other things can happen, too. Shortly before 7am, on another occasion, I had a phone call saying that the person who’d meant to be unlocking the hall hadn’t turned up. It took some time to track down another keyholder – in the meantime, the Presiding Officer had, with impressive ingenuity, turned their car into a polling booth. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining…”

The stress for an RO in such situations, as well as the fact that such problems often need to be dealt with at once and early in the day, is that they are ultimately and personally responsible for the official provisions of the process being carried out correctly. This responsibility is not to the their Council but to the general interests of democracy and the legislation that protects this; and, specifically, to the courts, in the event that any matter arising from the election reaches that stage. Having one polling station open a couple of hours late may not seem that serious – but imagine that 30 people claimed they weren’t as a result able to vote; and one candidate in that ward won by only ten votes; and that this result changed the political complexion of the overall result. Unlikely, I admit: but possible.

Even less likely is a dead-heat (which, given the comparatively small number of votes in each ward, happens more often in local than in general elections). The skills of an RO therefore also include being able to toss a coin.

So too is being able to count, or at least employing people who can do so. In the WBC elections in 2015 there was what the Newbury Weekly News called “a catalogue of errors,” which resulted in one candidate (the current West Berkshire Lib Dem Leader Lee Dillon) being declared the winner in his ward even though it was later admitted by the RO (WBC’s then CEO Nick Carter) that more votes had been declared than cast. This was blamed on poor staff training, exhaustion and, as Nick Carter was ruefully forced to admit, “our having some people who quite clearly couldn’t count.” Once the result has been announced, whether wrong or right, only parliament can overturn it. When the RO steps up and reads the scores, they are therefore effectively passing a law. No pressure, then.

It is this clause in the official Electoral Commission regulations that must give ROs the biggest headaches: “As RO you are subject to breach of official duty provisions. This means that if you or your appointed deputies are, without reasonable cause, guilty of any act or omission in breach of official duty you (and/or they) are liable on summary conviction to an unlimited fine.” The last three words must really focus the mind.

And these examples are just on the day, mind you. Before that there’s the whole business of correctly printing and distributing all the documents such as polling cards and ballot papers. One error could make a nonsense of the whole process and lead an “unlimited fine.”

All this would give me the heeby-jeebies for months before the event. What, I asked Nigel Lynn, was the one aspect of this election that might have him wake up at 3am in a cold sweat?

“The issue of photo ID,” he said without hesitation. “This is the one new thing this time. I want as many people as possible to vote. Government statistics suggest that about 97% of voters already possess at least one of the acceptable kinds of ID that the new legislation demands on 4 May. However…”

“…will all of them remember to bring them?” I suggested: recalling some situations, one alarmingly recent, when I had failed to do something similar.

“Exactly,” he said. “These local elections are the first time where these rules have applied. I would encourage everybody who can vote to take the time to do so. It is your right, and this is your opportunity to help determine who makes local decisions that will affect you in the future. I’m confident that the election will be run in a fair and transparent way – but please remember to bring your photo ID with you. We have already given this matter considerable publicity and will continue to do so.”

You can find a complete list of acceptable forms of ID on the Electoral Commission website.

Finally, I asked Nigel Lynn about the pre-election period, previously and still unofficially known as “purdah”, which started at 8am on Friday 24 March and continues until the polls close at 10pm on 4 May. During this time, the council may not make any announcements which might confer any political advantage. (Such reticence is not, of course, demanded of the parties and their candidates). The point here is that during the election there will be points of contention – anything from a possibly misleading statement in a piece of election literature to an alleged breach of the pre-election regulations, or from incorrect details on a voting card to a perceived breach of process in the nomination process.

He told me that, whoever these are raised with at WBC, they will eventually find their way to him as the RO. Each will need to be looked into, some requiring the most delicate judgement to resolve: and, all the while, with that phrase “unlimited fine” ringing in his ears.

So, on 4 May, if you’re at the count and hear a victorious candidate pay tribute to the Returning Officer, they really mean it. If the RO is there and you see a strange expression cross their face as the words are uttered it’s probably not self-satisfaction but a sense of real relief that matters seem to have passed off without problem. And if, a week or so later when all the dust has settled, you find yourself being unable to remember (if you ever knew) who WBC’s RO was or what they did, then I’m sure Nigel Lynn won’t be offended: in fact, that’s probably just the way he’d want it…

Brian Quinn

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