Local elections blog by Georgina Blakemore, Returning Officer for elections in the Epping Forest district.
Nominations have closed. Candidate details have been published on the website, and the race has started for the local elections on 4 May 2023.
As the media, candidates and electorates focus on the campaigns, I thought it might be good to reflect briefly on the election process and the changes in the offing.
This year (2023)
Elections are taking place for 18 of the 58 seats on Epping Forest District Council. We elect a third of the seats each year. Essex County Council elections are held in the fourth year of each cycle. That means that not everyone will be voting on 4 May.
Not everyone will be voting
If you live in Loughton for example, you may wonder what the fuss is all about. Your seats were contested last year. You have no elections this year.
However, if you live in other parts of the district such as Epping, Ongar and Waltham Abbey, you should have already received your polling card. It will tell you where to vote – your polling station, and when to vote – between 7am and 10pm on 4 May.
Vote by post
Alternatively, you may be one of the increasing number of people choosing to vote by post. You will have received a slightly different card. Your ballot paper will be sent out in the next couple of weeks. You will be able to make your choice and post it back to us before 4 May – but we won’t count it just yet. Not until the polls have closed.
If you don’t bring photo ID, you will not be able to vote.
The way we vote in polling stations has not fundamentally changed in decades, but this year is going to be different. For the first time, everyone who votes in their local polling station will need to bring proof of identity in some form of photo ID. Most of us already have something suitable. For example, a passport, driving licence or bus pass. You can see all the alternatives on the voter ID page on the council website.
The introduction of voter ID is to tackle the small but important instances of voter fraud that have taken place in other parts of the country in previous years. We have never seen voter fraud in Epping Forest, but this is a national change. If you don’t bring a photo ID, you will not be able to vote.
Voter Authentication Certificate (VAC)
Although the vast majority of us already have one or more suitable documents, you can also apply free of charge for a Voter Authentication Certificate. Again, all the information is on the voter ID page on our website. If you are unable to apply online, you can also come into the Civic Offices and we’ll help you. Please don’t leave it too late. The last date for VAC applications is 5pm on Tuesday 25 April.
Polling day 4 May
On polling day, our small Elections Team grows. A small army of volunteers have been recruited in recent weeks. Some of them have jobs even before polling day, organising postal votes and delivering poll cards. On 4 May our volunteers are up early. Each of our 41 polling stations is open and ready for business at 7am on the dot. It will be a long day. Our volunteers work right through to 10pm. At that point the presiding officer of each polling station seals the ballot boxes and transports them to the count centre.
Usually, we then hand over to another set of volunteers. Each box of ballot papers is verified to make sure the number of votes in the box tallies with the number of people who voted. If the numbers add up (they usually do), we count the actual number of votes for each candidate. Winners are announced and we all go home. The process takes hours and people can work until 4am or 5am.
However, this year the count is also being managed differently. 2023 is going to be our dress rehearsal for 2024.
What happens in 2024?
Elections are a bit like a car. They work perfectly when they are brand new, but over time things wear out and need an annual MOT to make sure they are still safe. Elections are similar. Each councillor represents a ward. Each ward is supposed to represent roughly the same number of people as the others.
But things change over time. New houses are built. New communities grow and the number of people in different wards becomes unbalanced. So the Boundary Commission comes in. It looks at the ward boundaries and electoral arrangements of every council from time to time. Not only does it look to see if wards have become unbalanced. It also assesses how many councillors each council needs to properly fulfil their roles.
Last year, the Boundary Commission completed its Epping Forest District Council ‘MOT’. It recommended a small reduction in the number of councillors from 58 to 54, and redrew practically every ward boundary in the district. Not only that, it changed our current arrangement of large, medium and small wards with 3, 2 or 1 councillors into uniform 3 councillor wards.
All-out elections in 2024
With so many changes it means that for next year only, Epping Forest District Council will have all-out elections. That means roughly twice as many polling stations and 3 times as many votes to count. On top of that, we will also be holding the election of the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, and we have to be prepared for the possibility of a general election – all on the same day!
We usually use a local secondary school hall as our count centre. We are finished by 5am and the hall reverts back to use of the school by the time students arrive. Schools also tend to have parking for many cars – essential if you are to get many volunteers travelling late at night and through the small hours of the morning.
But what do you do if you need the hall for longer? There is no way we could recruit enough volunteers or find a count centre hall big enough to accommodate them all to count the votes in 1 night.
The only alternative is to beef up the number of volunteers as much as we can and spread the count out over several days in the biggest hall we can find.
Dress rehearsal for 2024
We have scoured the district for a suitable venue and that is why we have chosen the Marriott Delta Hotel in Waltham Abbey as our Count Centre. This year’s relatively small set of district, town and parish council elections is the dress rehearsal.
When polls close at 10pm, we will gather in and store all the ballot boxes securely overnight. We will then be up bright and early Friday morning to complete the count and announce the results. By testing the Marriott this year, we hope we can identify all the teething problems so that next year, we will have a tried and tested count centre to deliver the all-out district, PFCC and potential general election results.
Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. We can all complain about candidates, their policies and the decisions they make for us. But, the alternative is stark. A glance at events in eastern Europe or the far east should be enough to remind us. Democracy matters, and it is worth a bit of time and inconvenience.
I hope you agree, and whether this year or next, you will make your vote count.
Returning officer and Chief Executive at Epping Forest District Council
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