Monday, 26 April 2010

Boundary changes blunder

The boundary changes that come into effect at this election mean that Bristol East loses the Lawrence Hill and Easton wards (which go into Bristol West) and the little bit of Knowle (which joins the rest of Knowle in Bristol South), and gains Frome Vale and Hillfields from the Kingswood constituency.

I've got to know lots of voters in Easton and Lawrence Hill over the past five years, through attending community events, dealing with casework and just generally getting out and about. So Paul Smith and I have gone to some lengths to explain to people that he'll be their candidate, not me. Unfortunately it hasn't quite sunk in at Bristol City Council, who have somehow managed to send out ballot papers to 2,800 postal voters in those wards with the names of the Bristol East candidates on them. (The 2,800 is their figure, although it may be that they've assumed they've got all the Easton/ Lawrence Hill postal votes wrong, and they haven't, which makes it even more muddled.)

Stephen McNamara, the Returning Officer, is going on Radio Bristol tomorrow to explain how it happened ("software error" I'm told), and what he's going to do about it. Apparently they're writing out to everyone, telling them the ballot papers are invalid, and will re-issue the ballot papers by May 4th at the latest. Is that going to be good enough? I suspect not. Look at these possible scenarios.

1) Mr and Mrs A have applied for a postal vote because they're going off on holiday on May 1st. Their replacement ballot paper arrives May 4th. They don't get the chance to vote.

2) Ms B doesn't get her postal vote until she arrives home from work on the evening of May 4th. She puts it in the post on May 5th. It's touch and go whether the post gets there in time for polling day on May 6th.

3) Mr C gets his ballot paper with Bristol East candidates on it, sends it off straightaway, and is confused by the second ballot paper arriving, so he doesn't send it off.

4) Mrs D is elderly and housebound, and can't get to the post office. She can't send off her ballot paper until her daughter comes round to visit on Thursday, which is too late.* NB In this scenario her daughter could drop the postal vote into the polling station on polling day, as that's always permitted; postal votes don't have to be sent by post.

Bristol West is likely to be a very close fight anyway, between Labour and Lib Dems. So what happens if, say, Paul Smith loses to the Lib candidate by 500 votes, but 600 postal votes are either invalid or aren't returned? (It's actually quite normal for many postal votes not to be used, though turnout is higher than it is for normal voting, but you wouldn't be able to assume that it was a deliberate abstention). Or even if the outcome is clear, but one of the minor parties narrowly misses holding onto their deposit? In the latter case I'm not sure whether they'd succeed in a legal challenge, or whether they could just be fobbed off by being given their deposit back, but in the first scenario it's pretty obvious that a legal challenge could be mounted, to try to declare the election result invalid. And if that happens, it means a by-election....

NB We had a couple of frantic hours in the office this afternoon, trying to find out whether it would affect all four Bristol seats, but it looks like it's just Bristol West. There is also a problem with ballot papers in the three south of the river wards, Brislington East + West, and Stockwood, with 800 or so ballot papers issued with duplicate numbers - i.e. there are two number ones, etc - but that can be sorted by checking against addresses, we hope.

1 comment:

SteveL said...

As a software engineer I find that we in the software engineering community must dispute the use of the term "software error" here. Software errors are the kind of thing that cause arianne5 rockets to explode.

This is more likely one of
1. Someone didn't update the ward info for all postcodes.
2. Someone updated the ward info but got it wrong.
These are both human errors.

That's OK. People make mistakes. It's the job of the software team to expect that and design for it -which is why your word processor has an "undo" button.

Where things failed this time was a process error: nobody checked that the ballot info was valid for selected addresses in the changed area.

That's the problem. Not the people, who are only human, nor the software, which does as its told, but the process for checking all is well.

Sorry. I did get my postal ballot BTW, does have Paul Smith's name on it.