Polling chaos: Thousands denied the vote / FRFI 215 Jun/ Jul 2010

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FRFI 215 June/ July 2010

Amid the chaos, incompetence and sheer stupidity that marked the polling arrangements, what emerged most starkly was the total contempt in which the so-called ‘democratic’ system in Britain holds its electorate.

Across the country, thousands of voters in Britain’s inner cities were denied a vote. The Electoral Commission gives an initial figure of 1,129 but concedes that this estimate is incomplete, with many Acting Returning Officers unable to provide accurate information and no accounting of the hundreds who simply left when told they were unlikely to get to vote.

What is clear is that in many parts of London, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and Bristol, polling stations failed dismally to cope with a (widely predicted) turnout only 4% higher than in 2005.

Problems were reported throughout the day: people were turned away because polling lists had not been updated, hundreds of missing postal ballots, insufficient ballot papers and lengthening queues.

Then, when polling closed at 10pm, presiding officers in many areas simply closed the doors, leaving hundreds who had been queueing for hours outside. In Sheffield Hallam, 5,000 students were told to form a separate queue from ‘residents’, with some waiting three hours and still being unable to vote by 10pm. Some angry voters tried to prevent ballot boxes being removed from the polling station and police were called; others tore up their polling cards in disgust. Many went in person to protest at the Sheffield constituency home of Clegg.

Sheffield council's chief executive, John Mothersole, has since said that he will waive his fee of over £20,000 as acting returning officer. Will other acting returning officers who presided over voting fiascos (all well-paid senior council executives, who receive a bonus between £2,500 and £4,000 per constituency) do the same? For example:

• Paul Rogerson, acting returning officer in Leeds, where scores of people were left outside one polling station at 10pm. Fee: £27,654

• Sir Howard Bernstein, in Manchester Withington, where up to 250 voters were turned. Fee: £9,251

• Colin Hilton in Wavertree, Liverpool, where several polling stations ran out of ballot papers. Fee: £17,470

Voters were also turned away in Birmingham Ladywood, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Hackney South and Shoreditch, Islington North, Manchester Withington and Runnymede and Weybridge. In Hackney, at least 200 angry protesters occupied polling stations; similar scenes were reported in Manchester and Sheffield.

Only a handful of polling stations, including in Lewisham, where police were called after 300 people were told they would be unable to vote at Manwood Road, sought a democratic solution; they crammed everyone in, locked the doors, issued everyone with a ballot paper before 10pm – thus obeying the letter of the law – and allowed voting to continue.

The Electoral Commission has urged an immediate review ‘to ensure these problems are not repeated at future elections’.

Of course, the election would have been a farce even if the process had functioned smoothly, with voters reduced to choosing between three parties so similar that no clear choice could emerge. And, other than in marginal seats, each vote is virtually meaningless. Yet however compromised our bourgeois democracy may be, however irrelevant to the mass of the working class, we must defend such democratic rights as we have – and that includes the right to vote.

Cat Wiener