Chief electoral officer and slow count staff criticised for delays

Chief Electoral Officer Graham Shields. Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye
Chief Electoral Officer Graham Shields. Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye

A review of May’s mammoth European election count has criticised the chief electoral officer for his planning and some of those counting the votes for working slowly.

The Electoral Commission, which scrutinises the conduct of the Electoral Office, said that chief electoral officer Graham Shields had not done enough contingency planning prior to the count.

And the watchdog identified speed problems with some of the counters as a reason for the chronic delays.

The commission said that despite the count problems, there were no questions over the result and public confidence in the electoral process remains high, with a poll suggesting that almost nine in 10 voters in Northern Ireland thought the poll was well-run.

The election took place on Thursday, May 22, the same day as council elections, which went largely to plan. The European election count did not begin until Monday but the result was not finalised until tea time the following day – almost five days since the close of polls the previous Thursday.

In its report on the election, the Electoral Commission said that problems quickly developed at the King’s Hall, with the first stage of the count taking almost nine hours to complete.

It said there was no “clear reason” for the vast delay but that a number of factors had contributed to the problems.

It commented: “There appeared to be a lack of overall management and oversight on the first day of the count resulting in some count staff not being used as effectively as they could have been. In addition some staff seemed to work considerably slower than others.

“Delays were also caused by the long time taken to complete the calculations at each stage of the count, most notably during the second stage when it took over one hour to work out the transfer of approximately 4,000 votes.”

The watchdog said that the second day of the count had been faster and more efficient after Mr Shields had “allocated an experienced local council deputy returning officer”.

It said that because there had been no expectation that the count could go into a second day, “a number of staff who had no experience of working in counts were appointed to work on the second day alongside those who agreed to return”.

It said that although manual single transferable vote elections take time, “we think that improvements could have been made to the planning based on the likely turnout and number of candidates, and to the overall management of the count process”.

But Mr Shields hit back at the Electoral Commission’s criticism of the election count.

The former PSNI chief superintendent said his office “noted” the watchdog’s comments and they would “receive careful consideration”.

But he added: “The Electoral Commission were engaged in the planning for these elections and it would have been very helpful if they had raised the concerns set out in their report prior to the elections taking place.”

Mr Shields said he “remained convinced” that electronic counting would dramatically improve counting.