Human error, tiredness and a migrating wheelie bin were to blame for the disappearance of more than 800 ballots during North Lincolnshire Council’s local elections in May.
The mistakes happened in the Broughton and Scawby Ward during May’s local elections, but were only discovered after the result was announced. Once declared, a result is legally binding. An independent electoral review has found that, once the mistake was discovered, all steps taken were “legally correct and well-considered”. However, the speed with which candidates and the public were informed could have been quicker.
The returning officer, then council chief executive Peter Thorpe, referred the issue to the Electoral Commission on Monday, May 8. The time period for a possible petition or legal application to challenge the result passed with no such attempts made. Therefore, the election of two Conservative councillors to the ward was accepted by all.
The council asked the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) for an independent review. It has now been officially published ahead of an Audit Committee on Friday, October 6, which will consider the report and its recommendations to avoid further mishaps in future.
The 19-page report sets out in painstaking detail the factors that led to the ballots being missed, as well as how their late discovery was handled. “There was no one single point of failure, rather several issues that independently and collectively contributed to the outcomes,” the AEA reported.
It was clear that human error, rather than electoral fraud, caused the issue. The count supervisor for the ward arrived after the verification process for the postal votes was carried out, as she was also in charge of a polling station. This meant she missed a wider briefing to count supervisors too.
Tiredness played its part. The count was overnight, with Broughton and Scawby declared at 4.15am on Friday, May 5. The AEA report states there was consistent feedback that staff, candidates and agents “were exhausted by the end of the proceedings” in the hot counting space at The Pods, Scunthorpe. This “significantly contributed” to the initial failure to count the 864 missing ballots.
Finally, the wheelie bin in which the ballots were placed after verification went walkabout. This was because a larger ward being counted next to Broughton and Scawby encroached on its table, “resulting in the wheelie bin containing the postal votes being moved without the count supervisor’s knowledge”.
The wheelie bin was discovered immediately after the result’s legally binding declaration. But confusion remained over whether the ballots contained within had been counted. The ward’s count supervisor was “too distressed to confirm” and supporting paperwork suggested no issue.
It was only on the following Monday that it was mathematically confirmed that the ballots could not have been counted and were the ward’s postal votes. By then, the Conservative Party’s election agent, Cllr Rob Waltham, had already queried the figures. He was initially given a holding response, before a the returning officer called him with an explanation of the situation on the Sunday.
Candidates were told of the error on Tuesday, May 9. One of the elected councillors questioned if the result would stand and was reassured that it would.
The AEA report found that the action taken by the returning officer, after the error was discovered were “sensible” and taken “in a measured manner”. However, the report found that the process could have been quicker, and candidates and the public could have been informed two days before actually happened.
The report makes 17 recommendations in total. These include a dummy count run for multi-member wards and a written protocol for when urgent communication is required with candidates at any stage of an election. The report stops short of telling North Lincolnshire Council to stop counting results overnight as soon as polls close. However, it points out that, increasingly, the trend is to count local election ballots on the following day.
Original artice: https://www.grimsbytelegraph.co.uk/all-about/scunthorpe