Today’s news that the Electoral Administration Act may mean the end of the overnight election count will get a mixed reaction from political hacks across the UK. On the one hand, there’s nothing like the excitement and nerves of the 5am recount on that crucial marginal ward, surrounded by other adrenalin-fuelled electoral junkies. Doing it during the day on Friday just won’t be the same – and of course, there will be a nervous overnight wait.
On the other hand, it does mean that you can relax and go to the pub come 10pm on polling day, rather than the current rushed half pint before piling into cars to the count, all the while hoping that your ballot box wasn’t the first to arrive.
But there may be some other unintended consequences of these measures, which essentially involve all postal voters having to sign their postal vote application; this signature being scanned in by the council; then, come the count, the scanned signature from the application being compared to the signature on the from that accompanies the postal vote itself, to check that they are the same.
Quite apart from the bonanza it will provide for companies selling software that enables the scanning of signatures – suddenly presented with the UK’s several hundred local authorities as a captive market – it will leave Returning Officers in the awkward position of being responsible for assessing handwriting when deciding on the legitimacy of a vote.
Most politicos have seen marginal council wards decided on a handful of votes, and even now there are usually votes that the candidates’ election agents argue over, such as the classic example of a voter crossing out the whole ballot paper in a way where the cross intersects one of the candidates’ boxes.
Now a whole new front will open up – the argument over whether a signature is genuine or not. The possibilities are endless, and as well as those IT companies you can be sure that any lawyers specialising in election law are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospects for endless litigation over disputed results, while EROs across the land chew their fingernails.
Strangely, politicians seem to be extremely bad at legislating over elections – the one thing you would expect them to know something about. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was a famously bad piece of legislation, imposing considerable burdens on constituency party treasurers and opening up various unintended consequences, heavily regulating the “short campaign” while allowing the richest candidates to spend millions in the years beforehand. Like all bad law, it is likely to end up punishing the well-intentioned but ignorant while the deliberately malicious know how to get round it.
In the meantime, we will no doubt be thankful for one very good law, the Licensing Act, come the next polling day.