The Electoral Commission is investigating if Lewisham Council’s solution to last Thursday’s surge in voting was a model solution to the problem. It would appear the Borough’s polling stations ensured everyone queueing to vote were able to put crosses on their ballot papers.
The Electoral Commission is calling on anyone turned away and denied a vote to contact them in a national inquiry into what is being seen as a scandal for a modern democracy. Human rights lawyers and civil liberties organisations have suggested that inviduals prevented from exercising their democratic right to vote in elections could be entitled to damages. There is also speculation that some polls may have to be rerun following election petitions. This is particularly the case in local elections where small numbers of votes determined the outcome in keenly contested wards.
Police had to deal with queues as the voting deadline passed in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, parts of London – including Croydon and Hackney – and Surrey. In some areas, furious would-be-voters staged angry protests and sit-ins after polling stations closed at 10 pm, as they are legally obliged to do, and no one without a ballot paper by then was allowed to vote.
Lewisham council’s handling of the potential chaos may provide some lessons. ELL reporter Cat Wiener saw the story unfold overnight as parliamentary, mayoral and local election candidates convened for the count and delivery of ballot boxes.
He suggested the problem had been caused by insufficient polling booths – at Crofton Park, for example, only four people could vote at any one time – a high turnout and particularly complex system of ballot papers, involving three separate votes for MP, local councillors and borough mayor. Polling stations were overwhelmed across the borough, with particular complaints made about Manwood Road in Catford, All Saints in New Cross and Forest Hill.
Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford Joan Ruddock told East London Lines that she acted as soon as she became aware of problems at polling stations. Faced with the real threat that some people might be unable to vote before 10 pm, she lodged a formal complaint and the decision was made by acting returning officer Barry Quirk to allow Lewisham polling stations to bring everyone in, close the doors and issue ballot papers before 10 pm so that all those queuing could vote.
People Before Profits mayoral candidate John Hamilton, was part of those discussions and described the scene.
While Liberal Democrat agent James Chard questioned the ethics of allowing voting to take place after 10pm and felt the surge could have been foreseen, he broadly welcomed the council’s handling of the problem.
However, Darren Johnson of the Green Party criticised the lack of a clear national policy and blamed lack of planning for the chaos: “It’s not what you expect in a democracy”.
But in a statement, a spokesman for Lewisham Council defended both its planning and subsequent decision:
“In our preparations we had anticipated a large number of people might arrive late in the evening to vote. Presiding officers had been advised to make sure that all people queuing were brought into the polling station and issued with ballot papers prior to 10pm. This meant we were able to comply with legal provisions and make sure people were not disenfranchised. Two of our polling stations experienced late queues but we were able to find a pragmatic solution to allow people to vote while remaining within the law.”
The Electoral Commission has asked anyone affected by Thursday’s voting chaos to contact them at www.electoralcommission.org.uk