107 days to the 2015 UK General Election – Expect the unexpected

None of us know what the future holds. That said, there is one pretty safe predication for Returning Officers and electoral administrators preparing for elections in 2015 – they can expect to be busy!

At the SOLACE Conference last week, I was one of the speakers looking ahead to the UK general election and the challenges it poses for the electoral community.

Despite the huge task ahead for all those working towards the range of different polls taking place on 7 May – parts of England will see the highest level of combination of polls since 1979 – let’s not forget we start from a solid foundation. Nearly nine in ten voters we talked to said the elections in May last year were well run. This shows that the hard work of elections teams across the country is continuing to translate into public confidence. It’s a great start, but none of us can afford to be complacent.

So, what can we expect from the May elections? UK general elections bring their own unique challenges – and this one is already different from May 2010. Having fixed terms for parliament now gives certainty about the date and so more time for administrators, us and campaigners to plan.

The level of interest is likely to be greater than at other UK-wide elections since 2010, which may well manifest itself in a higher turnout. Higher turnout means more voters at polling stations. After the experience of 2010 we worked with Government and Parliament to ensure that the law was changed so that voters can be issued with a ballot paper if they are in a queue at their polling station at close of poll.

Polls are also much more likely to be hard-fought, with many close contests. We are increasingly moving towards a multi-party system and this evolving political landscape means even in places where there have been traditionally large majorities, this may no longer be the case, so the focus and circumstances could be different from anything experienced before. I think it’s fair to say that Returning Officers can expect to see close results, with high interest at every count (and on social media), with the potential for more requests for recounts, often from people who are less familiar with the system and how it works.

Effective planning is therefore one of the main ingredients for a successful poll. Our job is to help make that preparation easier. From the guidance we have already issued to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, to the performance standards we have in place to ensure that voter registration and elections are managed as effectively as possible, we will continue to offer whatever guidance and support we can.

Of course preparation isn’t just about gearing up for election day itself. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The focus on the numbers of those registered and not registered is as high profile as it’s ever been, and this is set to continue. Clearly IER presents a significant challenge, but we were pleased that safeguards have been built in so no-one on the register falls off as a result of the change before the elections in May.

IER also provides opportunities we’ve never had before, such as the ability to register online for the first time. In rising to the challenges of IER, Electoral Registration Officers have been working hard to get as many people as possible registered before the elections. We’ll continue to support this work – as part of our campaign for the General Election, we will be creating a suite of supporting materials that electoral administrators, communication teams and prospective partner organisations can use alongside our public awareness campaign.

So while it’s easy to focus on the challenges, there are some real opportunities this year to engage the public in new ways, working collaboratively to build confidence in the electoral system.

Ailsa Irvine
Head of Guidance and Performance

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