Thursday, March 18, 2010

Electoral Commission: Returning Officers Could Be Prosecuted For Friday Counts

The Electoral Commission has now issued draft guidance notes to Returning Officers, with their latest views on whether counts should be held on election night. Originally they had intended to wait until the Constitutional Renewal Bill had received Royal Assent, but it is good they they have decided to issue these draft guidance notes. It gives Returning Officers time to plan. Mark Pack highlights these points...

The key points of the guidance are:

  • If plans are already well advanced for election counts involving starting to count on the Friday, then it may be reasonable for the (Acting) Returning Officer to argue that it is too late for them to change plans.
  • However, given the legal obligation to take reasonable steps to start counting on the Thursday night, the guidance reminds (Acting) Returning Officers that they will be liable to prosecution (for breach of official duty) if they do not either count on Thursday or have very good, documented reasons for not doing so.
  • (Acting) Returning Officers should be mindful of the need to properly process postal votes, but this hint at therefore delaying until the Friday is balanced out by some suggestions on how to arrange matters so as to allow a Thursday night count.
  • The relative costs of running a Thursday night versus a Friday morning count should be considered, but if a Thursday night count would cost more then that is a matter that should be raised with the Ministry for Justice as it is responsible for funding counts (or, in Scotland, the Scotland Office).

In other words, the Electoral Commission has partly put the ball back in the Ministry of Justice’s court. Having been sceptical of the Ministry’s support for this change in the law, the Commission is saying, “if you want it, you’ll have to pay for it”. However, the Electoral Commission has also explicitly reminded (Acting) Returning Officers in the draft guidance that they could be liable under the law if they drag their feet on Thursday counts unreasonably.

Overall, this is guidance that will encourage more rather than fewer to start counting on the Thursday night, particularly if the Ministry of Justice (and Scotland Office) are willing to fund any extra costs involved.

603 of 650 constituencies have now notified the Electoral Commission of their plans. You can view the list HERE.


Tom said...

Hopefully the mere suggestion of prosecution will be motivation enough for returning officers to start the count on Thursday

Sean said...

I read both the document and Appendix with interest, but did not see anything that led me to assume that EOs would be any more likely to face prosecution for counting on Friday than Thursday night.

Did I miss something?

Brian said...

I don't mind if counting starts on Friday so long as I can be certain that votes aren't tampered with. The 13 year Nulabor Project has ended that once instinctive trust in the integrity of offialdom.

DespairingLiberal said...

The list doesn't look all that different to previous years - there are maybe a few too many Undecideds but they are mostly the large rural areas as usual. Seems a lot of fuss about not very much to be honest.

I think you are right though that this is just an example of an unfunded promise by the government, against which the cost of running elections has risen considerably because of the surge in postal voters, also encouraged by central government.

Oh dear. More joined-up government!

DespairingLiberal said...

Gallimaufry, you are right - people need to be very much on their guard this time around. I suspect there will be high-level interference, not least because the security services are now so fully signed up to NuLab.

However, my suspicions started some considerable time ago, when John Major announced before the counts (against all the polling evidence) "I know we are going to win".

Andy JS said...

The Highland Region of Scotland has decided to count on the night, which comprises 3 of the largest (if not the largest) seats in the UK: Caithness, Inverness and Ross. (I haven't typed out the full names).

Tapestry said...

Yes Gallimaufry, respect for officialdom has been replaced with a sickening distrust which gnaws away in your stomach. Next stop is hatred of those who destroyed the culture of trust which took centuries to build. NewLab destroyed it in a decade.

Moriarty said...

@despairing liberal.

I know that to deprive a liberal of a conspiracy theory is like stealing methadone from an addict but Major said exactly the same before the 1997 election.

Not a sheep said...

Who cares about prosecution, look at the big picture - a chance to get all those postal votes etc. sorted to ensure some narrow Labour victories. Have you no patriotism, vote labour for a better UK.

Andy JS said...


Only 5 British seats counted on the Friday in 2005.

It is possible to argue that a fuss should be made about what's happening, because so many large, rural seats are counting on the night but a lot of small, urban seats are delaying until the next day.

The largest seats in Wales are counting on the night in Brecon and Montgomeryshire, the largest seats in Scotland are counting on the night as I pointed out in my previous comment, some of the largest seats in England are counting on the night - Penrith, Devon West, Ludlow, North Norfolk, Richmond (Yorks), etc, and all Northern Ireland seats are counting on the night.

But at the same time, a lot of small, compact seats are counting the next day - such as in Milton Keynes, Northampton, Norwich, Reading, Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Birmingham, Derby.

NightGardener said...

Not sure about the title of the posting. Could you point out what the sanction is for: (a) not taking reasonable steps; and (b) not making a report to the comission in a timely manner. I am not arguing that they will not have broken the law, rather I am asking what is the sanction for that act?

Andy JS said...

Stoke-on-Trent has just changed its mind, and will now count on the night.

Also, York Central and York Outer will be counting on the night.

York Outer is notionally the Tories' number 3 target seat and number 1 target seat from the LDs.

DespairingLiberal said...

Moriarty, do you have a reference for that, as they say in Wikipedia? I recall no such statement by him, but everyone vividly recalls him saying it prior to the one he (somewhat incredibly) won.