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Polling Station Portacabins Could Be In Short Supply In Festival Season Election

Polling stations will be open across the UK for the General Election on 4 July but portacabins to house could be already hired out for music festivals (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak's decision to hold a general election in early July has created a "huge challenge" for organisers, who face a race against time to recruit staff and find space to hold polls.

The timing of the election caught Westminster off-guard last week, as the settled consensus was that the Prime Minister was more likely to wait until the autumn before going to the country.

Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said the significantly tighter timeline means there is “massive pressure” on teams who are facing the first major national vote since the introduction of voter ID, as well as changes to rules around proxy and postal voting.

Stanyon, head of the organisation that offers help and advice to electoral administration professionals across the country, told PoliticsHome that after the “technical rehearsal” of the May local elections three weeks ago, staff are now faced with the “huge challenge” of getting the election organised within the next six weeks with the changes to the system. 

Stanyon said local teams could be “struggling to get the bodies behind the desks” to run election processes, and that portacabins could be in short supply for polling purposes because the election will take place in the middle of festival season.

“There’s a lot of challenges that will not be consistent across every single constituency, but there will be a different challenge in every single constituency,” he said.

This year, hundreds of thousands more British citizens living abroad will be able to register for a vote thanks to the abolition of the rule that meant people who left the UK more than 15 years ago lost the right to vote. 

Stanyon now expects “higher numbers coming through” of applications from overseas electors, and, while “if the application is complete and people know where they previously lived we can track it down and its a relatively straightforward process”, there can be “a lot more evidence chasing” if information is missing or incorrect. 

The new overseas provision is not the only difference to the electoral system this year. 

The Elections Act in 2022 introduced a number of changes to the rules around voting, including on voter ID, and there have also been changes to proxy and postal voting. 

As explained by the Electoral Commission, there is a limit to the number of people a person can be a proxy for, including if voting on behalf of people who do not live in the UK. 

Rules dictate that people who choose to vote by post need to re-apply to do so evert three years. In addition, they will only be able to hand in their own postal ballot and five more, and will need to hand in paperwork detailing why they are handing in those votes.

The 4 July general election will also be the first time that the Voter ID rules have applied nationwide, having been used at every vote since the local elections in May 2023. 

Teams in polling stations now have "got a far more complicated job than even three years ago," Stanyon said.

"Because you’re having to deal with the chance of turning someone away because the wrong type of ID has been provided or not been provided at all, you’re having to sign in postal votes if they’re turned into a station."

Staff will also be making calls to try and organise access to polling stations, often hosted in schools or other public buildings such as community centres. 

Getting hold of portacabins to use as polling stations could also be problematic, Stanyon suggested, with many suppliers already signed up to other events in the summer calendar, such as music festivals. 

The changes, he predicted, are among the reasons that there are concerns about staff recruitment. Looking at the “complexity of the actual voting process” is leading some to reconsider the responsibilities. “Staff are now less willing to put themselves forward, people are dropping out, some returning officers are really struggling to get the bodies behind the desks to run the process,” Stanyon said.

One source who works in electoral services for a local authority in the south of England told PoliticsHome that “one of the hardest things to do is to employ staff to work at elections".

They described a general election as a “different beast” to local votes, and think there will be a “struggle” to get though people recruited. 

“We’ve got a lot of polling stations and there is a minimum amount of people that you’re supposed to have working in those polling stations especially for a general election, based on how many electors are going to those polling stations. 

“We are going to struggle to get enough people to work at these elections.” 

“There’s just no one that wants to do it, especially because all of the additional responsibilities based on Voter ID and now postal vote handling as well. So there’s a lot of responsibility placed on those people that work in these polling station.”

They added: “We know this happens and we are happy to do it, but we want to be respected for it.” 

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