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Voting chaos in not-fit-for-purpose electoral system

Ballot bollox and proportional misrepresentation

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Comment As the dust cleared on a strangely uneventful election night, two aspects of the supposedly cast-iron British electoral system may finally have been found to be "not fit for purpose".

First up is the antiquated and now thoroughly discredited way in which we, the electorate, express our views about our would-be politicians through the medium of the ballot box.

Failure in this bit of the system saw voters turned away from polling stations, police called out to deal with near riot in some of our city centres, and the prospect of serious legal challenges to come in some of our more marginal constituencies.

The worst possible scenario - which appears to have been averted by the failure of the Tories to get even close to an overall majority - would be a situation where we would need to wait for the decision of various legal bodies before we knew the colour of the next government.

How could this happen? After all, since the dawn of the 21st century, the system has been very simple: we just visit vote.gov.uk, tap in our unique voter number, and press a button to indicate which party we want to vote for. Voting closes at 10 pm - and the national result is declared some 60 seconds later.

In our dreams. In fact, if you wish to vote in a general election, or any election, for that matter, you must first make sure that your personal details are included on a list of voters at least ten working days before voting takes place.

On the day itself, you must turn up at an appointed place - usually a dingy school hall - carrying a piece of paper which should have been sent to you by post, proclaiming your right to vote. Your details are checked against a printed list: your name crossed through in pencil; and you are given a slip of paper on which to make your mark.

Failure to arrive on time will see you barred from voting.

The system has evolved little since the early days of the last century. Its reliance on physical processes means that the scope for error is huge and, where turn-out is slightly greater than that expected, electoral disaster looms.

Incidents recorded by the BBC include:

  • Police being called to a polling station in Lewisham, where about 300 people had still to vote by close of polls.
  • Angry would-be voters staging a sit-in at close of polls in Hackney, London.
  • Voters left waiting when one polling station in Liverpool ran out of ballot papers.

Elsewhere in the country, there were several reports of either voters being turned away, or polling stations being kept open for a while after the official close of polls. Both these events are capable of triggering a legal challenge in the case of a close result.

And there's the small issue of alleged postal vote fraud which had already been brewing before the election.

Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson was last night calling for an official inquiry. She said: "Clearly we are going to look at this. The government is going to look at this. It may be that the law needs to change."

Meanwhile, the other bit of the electoral system that was tested and found somewhat wanting was the method of determining electoral outcomes.

At time of writing (4.30 am) and with 400 of the 650 seats declared, the Tories, on 36.5 per cent of the votes have 285 seats. Labour, on 28.7 per cent have 232 seats - and Lib Dems, on 22.8 per cent, have 50 seats.

The Lib Dems are currently 6 seats down and look highly unlikely to make the gains hoped for at the start of the campaign.

In the days to come, much will be made by David Cameron and the Tories of the legitimacy of a government clinging to power after losing so heavily in the polls.

We suspect rather less will be heard about the legitimacy of forming a government with the ringing endorsement of just over a third of the electorate. ®

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