Stretched officials say UK's ability to hold snap elections is at risk

Ben Quinn
Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

British election officials have called on the government to carry out a risk assessment of the country’s ability to hold a snap general election.

The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) said it had “genuine concerns” about the expectation that elections would always be safely delivered regardless of the landscape, timing, funding or capacity of people delivering them.

“This view is becoming unrealistic,” it warned in a report, which highlighted “ongoing uncertainty surrounding electoral events”.

The administrators said they were concerned that an apparent lack of capacity and “the government’s unwillingness to allow officials to engage with the electoral community to make sensible contingency preparations will continue to introduce significant risk to the delivery of unscheduled polls”.

The Electoral Landscape in 2019 report added: “For entirely understandable but clearly avoidable reasons, there appears to be a lack of technical knowledge and experience that we believe urgently needs addressing.”

The experience of EU citizens in the UK and British nationals abroad who complained of being denied a vote in this year’s European parliamentary elections was also highlighted in the report, which said the late notification of the poll introduced significant pressures to already stretched electoral administrators. It “strongly urged” the government to consider the way in which overseas electors cast their votes.

The delivery of the elections was only achieved “because of the dedication, personal commitment and enormous sacrifices” made by electoral workers.

Peter Stanyon, the AEA chief executive, said: “These are unprecedented times in electoral administration, with yet another unscheduled nationwide poll being prepared for by stretched and often under-resourced teams.

“Electoral administrators always deliver but cracks are beginning to show. The need for urgent and positive action to support electoral delivery is more pressing than ever.”

Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement, said: “This damning report highlights the wilful neglect of this government towards our electoral system.

“It is widely accepted that our electoral laws are in desperate need of reform, yet the Tories have done nothing to address this. It was even the government’s refusal to innovate that led to the democratic disaster at European elections which saw thousands of electors denied their vote.

“We cannot allow the Tories to undermine our democratic processes, which is why we need a comprehensive review of our entire electoral framework as a matter of urgency.”

To vote in a general election you must:

  • be 18 or over on the day of the election (‘polling day’)
  • be a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen
  • be resident at an address in the UK (or a British citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years)
  • not be legally excluded from voting

You also need to be on the electoral register. You only have to register once, but will need to re-register if you have changed your address, name or nationality.

The forms can be completed online. You may need details of your national insurance number your passport if you’re a British citizen living abroad, and want to vote in England, Scotland or Wales.

If you need help, you should contact your local Electoral Registration Office. You can use this service to find their address if you live in England, Scotland or Wales. If you live in Northern Ireland you need to contact the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI).

Many EU citizens were turned away from polling stations during the European parliamentary elections in May with their names crossed off the ballot, while Britons overseas protested that their ballot papers only showed up in the days before or did not show up at all.

The Guardian has received almost 1,000 case stories from EU citizens and Britons abroad, both in Europe and in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

They included a German couple who were told they could not vote on the Thursday morning of the polls but were later told they could, after their council checked CCTV footage and found they had been telling the truth about submitting their paperwork on time.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are confident in our system’s preparedness for future elections. But we are always looking for ways to improve our electoral system and will carefully consider the recommendations of this report.

“We appreciate the vital work of electoral administrators in maintaining our democracy.”