Report says poor planning caused election count delays

counting at ni assembly election 2011 Staff had to complete counts for assembly and council elections as well as a referendum

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The planning of the assembly and local election counts and a referendum in May has been strongly criticised by the Electoral Commission.

The election watchdog said there had been problems completing the counts in a "timely manner".

Poor planning, insufficient communication and the lack of an overall management plan for the counts were identified as key issues.

The report found polling day on 5 May was largely managed successfully.

It revealed, however, that up to a third of ballot paper accounts contained mistakes because training for officers in charge of boxes was different from the paperwork to be completed on polling day.

The commission also found that the count for the referendum on Westminster voting was badly managed, and that having three sets of ballot papers to verify before counting could begin caused significant delays

The commission said delays in Belfast counts were also caused because not enough staff were deployed to complete verification of unused ballots overnight, while staff failed to turn up at some count centres (45 of them at Valley Leisure Centre and 33 at Lagan Valley).

Seamus Magee, head of the Electoral Commission's office in Northern Ireland, said: "Voters in Northern Ireland have the right to expect the same high standard of electoral services as their counterparts in Great Britain.

"We are calling on the UK government to ensure that appropriate performance standards are put in place in Northern Ireland so that meaningful comparisons can be made."

Factors which added to the delays included:

  • The late issuing of guidance from the chief electoral officer to deputy returning officers on managing the count
  • Poor staff training on the combined polls
  • The suitability of some count venues
  • The poor quality of paperwork returned by some presiding officers
  • The failure of a number of staff to turn up at some count venues
  • Staff who managed the counts suffering from fatigue

Mr Magee said that consideration should also be given to looking at what else can be done to give voters and their elected representatives more say on how the electoral process is managed in Northern Ireland.

"We are pleased to note that the chief electoral officer has already given a commitment to carrying out a full review of the management of elections and the counting process in Northern Ireland and we will play our part in this review," he said.

"In addition we will report on the progress made on our recommendations in October 2012."

Commenting on the report, Graham Shields, the chief electoral officer, said: "I welcome the report of the Electoral Commission and am grateful for their acknowledgement of the significant challenges faced by my staff in managing three simultaneous electoral events.

"The commission were closely involved in the planning arrangements for the polls and it is pleasing to note that many of their recommendations relate to matters I have decided to examine as part of my recently commenced review of election planning in Northern Ireland."

Despite turnout being the lowest yet for an assembly election, the report showed that over 11,000 new names were added to the electoral register and over 5,600 people updated their details in the run-up to polling day.

The Electoral Commission said the increase was largely the result of a direction from the chief counting officer for the referendum that polls cards be issued earlier.

It also led to the highest number of people registered to vote in Northern Ireland since the introduction of individual electoral registration in 2002.

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