Watchdog concerned about repeat of election vote chaos

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Image caption,
Election officials were caught out by high levels of turnout in May's general election

Ministers have been warned they are missing an opportunity to stop people being denied the opportunity to vote, as happened in the general election.

Thousands could not cast ballots before polls closed in May due to long queues and problems at polling stations.

The Election Commission said it was "disappointed" the law on handing out ballots was not being changed before a 2011 referendum on voting reform.

Officials said they were studying the issue and no decision had been taken.

In an update on preparations for the government's planned referendum on the Westminster electoral system on 5 May 2011 - due to be held on the same day as devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - the watchdog said it was worried about a repeat of May's events when thousands of people queuing to vote were locked out of polling stations after they closed at 2200 BST.

Missed opportunity

Under current laws, officials cannot issue ballots papers to people after polls have closed although, in a few instances in May, people already inside polling stations were allowed to vote after 2200.

The Election Commission said the law could have been changed as part of the legislation paving the way for the referendum - approved by MPs earlier this month and due to be considered soon by the Lords - and it had made its "views known" to ministers over the issue.

"We are disappointed that the UK government has not taken the opportunity of this bill to implement our recommendation to change the law, so that returning officers can issue ballot papers to anyone who is at a polling station, but has not yet voted, when polling closes," Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, said.

The watchdog said it would "mitigate" the risks of this happening again next May, should the referendum bill become law, by ensuring the referendum was properly planned and resourced.

However, it stressed that officials in individual constituencies could do very little in the eventuality of "200 people turning up at a polling stations at 9.55pm".

Poor organisation

Asked about the issue at prime minister's questions on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - responsible for the referendum bill and whose Sheffield constituency was affected by May's problems - said the focus should be on ensuring local authorities were better prepared for future elections.

"I am acutely aware of the problem," he told MPs. "The question is what do we do about it. I happen to think, in this particular instance, simply passing a law won't deal with the problem.

"The problem was a lack of resources and poor organisation," he said of May's events. "That is what we need to address and not simply always reach for the statute book."

The Cabinet Office said it was considering the watchdog's recommendation.

But it added: "However in most cases where problems occurred, the Electoral Commission found the common factor to be that inadequate planning processes and contingency arrangements were in place."

Critics of the referendum date - including the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and many Labour MPs - say combining it with devolved elections will confuse voters and could cause disruption.

The watchdog said it would be a "significant challenge" to ensure the smooth running of the separate polls and it "was important local authorities have the right resources and staff in place".

The watchdog said it believed counting of the votes in the referendum should begin at 4pm on the day after the poll, 6 May, although it would consult on the matter.

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