Council acts to restore voter confidence as independent investigation is published

Plymouth City Council is overhauling the way it manages elections as an independent report is published into the cause of a range of problems with the 2017 General Election.

The Council is using the findings of the investigation to implement an action plan to restore confidence in its ability to manage electoral processes.

The City Council jointly commissioned the investigation with the Electoral Commission after a number of problems in the lead-up to the June 8 election, including some postal voters not receiving their packs in time.

The investigation led by Dr Dave Smith, former chief executive of Sunderland City Council, looked into all aspects of the way the election was managed and invited anyone who experienced problems to share their experiences. A total of 127 submissions were received, 24 people were interviewed and more than 70 pieces of evidence investigated.

The report identifies four main problems during the election process:

  • 35,000 postal vote electors received two polling cards – one for their postal vote and one for the polling station. This had no impact on voting but it did cause confusion.
  • 331 electors who received poll cards issued on 5 May were later removed from the register through the rolling programme of reviewing the register. 38 of these people turned up at a polling station on polling day and were reinstated on the register. This was not escalated to the Acting Returning Officer and the decision was made without their authorisation.
  • While 41,062 registered postal voters received their packs as normal, 1,926 registered postal voters did not receive their packs through the normal batch issues. Of these, 1,839 were issued with a replacement postal vote pack, leaving 87 where delivery was not possible.
  • The declaration at the count for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport omitted the 6,587 votes verified and counted for the Efford and Lipson ward.

The key issues that led to these problems included:

  • Despite extensive efforts by the Council to address staffing issues there was a long-standing problem with insufficient capacity and capability in the core registration and election service, which was exacerbated by the retirement of a longstanding Electoral Services manager. The recruitment process was not complete when a snap election was called in April 2017.
  • As a result the registration and electoral system and process lacked integrity, robustness and adequate quality control and assurance.
  • There was insufficient progress in implementing the re-engineering of the business processes to streamline demands on the core team to those needing specialist input, allowing others in the Council to deal with other non-specialist tasks.
  • The Acting Returning Officer provided strong strategic leadership in the registration and election requirements but there was a wide gap between strategic planning and operational realities.
  • In trying to rectify the postal vote pack distribution problem “it is difficult to see how the Council could have been more effective given the constraints placed upon in, particularly that of time.”
  • Despite attempts to take a proactive approach to communication with all stakeholders once the size and nature of the problem was recognised, communications was not as effective as it needed to be.
  • The total number of electors who were unable to vote is estimated to be between 150 and 200 out of the 217,186 who were registered to vote in the three Plymouth constituencies, though many more were inconvenienced, concerned or upset by the issues identified.

Dr Smith, who will present his report to the meeting of the full Council on 25 September, recommends that the Council:

  • Acts swiftly to permanently recruit enough suitably experienced electoral registration staff to ensure the team is up to recommended staffing levels
  • In the meantime ensure there are enough interim staff with sufficient operational experience to manage the team, build capacity and ensure focus
  • Make sure sufficient resources and properly documented systems, procedures and processes are put in place to ensure a successful election canvass, prepare for local elections in 2018 and plan for a General Election
  • Review the efficiency and effectiveness of the business processes and ensure a successful move to the new Electoral Management computer system
  • Embed non specialist roles such as customer/voter support in other parts of the Council to provide additional customer help
  • Develop a more detailed communications plan with key stakeholders to ensure effective election communications especially when unusual situations arise
  • Build on the best practice of the existing Elections Board by increasing oversight through a cross-party committee and regular meetings with the Electoral Commission
  • Carry out an independent review in Jan 2018 to ensure the Council is suitably prepared for elections in May 2018.

Dr Smith said: “I have had the full cooperation of the Council in my investigation. All my requests for information have been met positively, fully and effectively. People have responded openly to my interviews. In my view the Acting Returning Officer acted appropriately and effectively throughout the General Election. The key issues are: the Council’s longstanding challenge with recruiting the right staff to its core electoral and registration team; not being quick enough to improve its business processes and needing to build better links between strategic and operational planning. However the Council’s decision to maximise the number of people who could vote by any means possible was the right one.”

Acting Returning Officer (ARO) and Chief Executive, Tracey Lee, said: “I would like to apologise once more for the inconvenience we have caused to voters and for the fact that a number of people were disenfranchised at the General Election. We accept fully Dr Smith’s conclusions and have already started the work to make our Electoral Service fit for purpose. We still have work to do but we are committed to getting this right. We will be asking the Electoral Commission, other councils and a further independent review to check that what we have done meets the high standards that Plymouth voters rightly expect.”

The Council has produced a report which will be delivered alongside Dr Smith’s report, identifying the action it is already taking in light of the findings:

  • A dedicated project team has been set up to ensure Dr Smith’s recommendations are implemented
  • All roles within the Electoral Service have been reviewed, recruitment for a Head of Elections has started and interim specialist support has been recruited
  • A new electoral registration computer system has been installed, tested and staff trained
  • A dedicated business analyst has been assigned to ensure all systems and processes being used are robust and greater use of digital channels for registration has been explored with customer services
  • The annual canvass is underway and extra communications and customer care support are being provided
  • Communications plans will be reviewed with the help of stakeholders, Electoral Commission guidance and external review from other councils to help reassure voters and restore confidence in the system
  • The Elections Board has reviewed its terms of reference
  • The full Council will recommended to appoint the Constitutional Review Group to carry out additional oversight of the improvement action plan, with the Elections Board, reporting to Council and that regular check-ins are scheduled with the Electoral Commission
  • An Independent Review is set for January 2018 to provide assurance on preparations for the May 2018 local elections and the Council will actively seek independent peer review during the year.
  • Adrian Green from the Electoral Commission said: “Following the problems encountered in the administration of the UK parliamentary general election in Plymouth in June, the Commission fully supported an independent investigation into the issues. We welcome Dr Dave Smith’s review and look forward to supporting Plymouth City Council to deliver the further improvements now required. We will be publishing a report on the administration of the May and June polls later this year.”

Council Leader Ian Bowyer welcomed the report and said: “I would like to thank Dr Smith for his work and look forward to him presenting his report to our Council meeting as promised. It’s important for all councillors that both they and our voters have complete confidence in the Council’s Electoral Service. I am totally committed to ensuring that this happens.”