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Postal Vote Cock Up

Postal Vote Cock UpHard on the heels of the awful mess that was Fylde's  Budget Council meeting, we now have yet another cock-up

This time it's about Postal Votes for the election.

We were alerted by a reader this morning to a recent social media post which had said

"Please circulate - THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH POSTAL VOTES FOR Fylde Borough Council!!!

Just come to fill in my postal voting slip for the general election and spotted that the ballot paper number on the voting statement and envelope doesn't correspond with the number on the actual ballot paper (it's one of the things they say you have to check otherwise your vote is invalid).

It's 1 digit out and so is hubbie's so I'm now wondering if all the Fylde Constituency ones will be the same.

Please check before you post yours off!"

"Just had a call back from FBC - it sounds like all FBC postal votes will be wrong due to a problem with the printing.

Your FBC vote will only count if you have rung them to tell them yours is wrong.

No call - your vote could be scrapped. Please check! I assume other councils will be ok??

We need our votes now more than anytime before!! *"

The person who posted the message was right to say there was a problem, but - according to Fylde - it is only some of the Postal Votes that are affected and, because all postal votes are being checked manually, it will be 'allright on the night.'

Fylde's official line on this matter is available from their website as a News Item saying:

"Further to a report from a member of the public, Fylde Borough Council can confirm that it has identified a printing anomaly, affecting a small number of postal ballot papers for the upcoming Parliamentary Election on 8 June 2017.

This has arisen as the result of an error made at the printing stage, prior to the delivery of the postal packs to Fylde Borough Council. In some postal packs, the number on the postal voting statement does not correspond with the number on the back of the ballot paper. Upon receipt of the postal packs from the printers, quality checking was conducted in strict adherence to Electoral Commission procedure, but no such anomaly was identified at that time.

Fylde Borough Council is manually checking EVERY individual postal vote received, to ensure that ALL such mismatched postal packs are identified and WILL BE COUNTED in the forthcoming election, so long as they have been filled in, as per the instructions in the postal voting packs.


If your ballot paper number does not match the number on your postal voting statement, there is no cause for alarm, simply complete the postal pack in line with the instructions and return it to us.

Thank you for your co-operation and please be assured that YOUR VOTE WILL BE COUNTED."

This is quite a big deal.

We note with interest that it was a member of the public who spotted that an error had occurred.

We also note that Fylde choose to refer to it in their news release as "a printing anomaly"

We think it would be more honest to have said 'mistake' or 'error' but in the world that Fylde inhabits it's  'an anomaly'

To be fair, in the second paragraph they do refer to it as a  'an error made at the printing stage, prior to the delivery of the postal packs to Fylde Borough Council.'

Appearing to blame the printer and implying that it's nothing to do with Fylde might be the case of course, but we would think Fylde's staff are the ones responsible for producing the Postal Voting documents, not the printer they select to work for them.

Postal voting in Fylde has grown enormously in recent times. The Electoral Commission notes that  postal voting nationally was as follows:

  • 2005:  12.4%
  • 2010: 15.7%
  • 2015: 16.9%

In Fylde's Parliamentary elections the number of postal votes cast were:

  • 2005: 7,825 postal votes out of 45,510 votes cast overall
  • 2010: 10,225 postal votes out of  43,946 votes cast overall
  • 2015: 11,505 postal votes out of 44,151 votes cast overall

So it's probably grown to more than 12,000 postal votes by now.

At present, Fylde has said 'a small number' of postal votes are affected by the error.

But if, as Fylde appears to say, they are having to manually check all the postal votes to see which are affected, we wonder how they can know it is only a small number until they have checked them all.

Either way, having an unexpected additional check on something like 12,000 envelopes, (each of which will have to be opened to check the number on the envelope and the number on the back of the postal vote itself actually match up), is going to take quite a bit of time and cost.

This may not be as bad as it first seems, because all the votes have to be verify counted to ensure that the number of voting papers issued matches the number of votes received, so (assuming they can do both checks at the same time -  and we don't currently know if this is the case or not) it's only adding one extra check into the process.

But if it means two separate operations, it will be quite a big job.

Any of our incredibly curious election-anorak readers who might want to, can follow this link to see the Electoral Commission's current technical instructions about the process for opening postal votes.

Fylde look as though they are also trying to avoid - or at least minimise - their own culpability by saying '....quality checking was conducted in strict adherence to Electoral Commission procedure, but no such anomaly was identified at that time.'

This probably means that Fylde checked a 20% sample which didn't show up the error.

A University of Plymouth Postal Voting Report to the Electoral Commission in 2008 (after the The Electoral Administration Act 2006 introduced new anti-fraud measures for postal voting to help prevent electoral abuse), noted that the new regulations required Returning Officers to verify the personal identifiers on a minimum 20% sample of all postal ballot papers returned. * please see update at end.

The University study found that in fact, more than nine in ten returning officers across Great Britain claimed to have verified 100% (or very nearly) of all returns, and that Councils verifying 50% or fewer of returns were concentrated in rural areas and in southern England. They found the mean proportion of verified returned postal votes in 2009 was:

  • England 93.6%
  • Wales 99.5%
  • Scotland 99.4%

From what Fylde published, It sounds to us as though Fylde did the minimum 20% checking. *please see update at end

The University report also noted that in 2008, most councils used a fully automatic system to verify returned postal ballots. Manual and semi-automatic systems tended to be concentrated in smaller, more rural authorities.

So in conclusion, Fylde want us to rest assured they will ensure that the mistake will not affect the misnumbered postal votes and they will be included in the ballot for the Parliamentary Election.

But once again we see something having gone wrong and Fylde being unwilling to put their hands up and say sorry. We see nothing by way of an apology in their news release. They no doubt regret what has happened and are happy to thank us for our co-operation (whatever that might mean), but our reading of their news release has the feel of them trying to slide out of culpability when - at least in our view - an honest - 'our fault, sorry everyone' might well have gone down better.

But this 'hands up' approach seems not to be part of the culture at Fylde any more.

The present approach puts us in mind of Cllr Ashton who reported a £700,000 loss on his 'Streetscene' Department and told the inquiry into the matter.....

"It was unfortunate it happened, I regret it...... that it happened..... but I don't think anybody acted in a way, deliberately, to act wrongly in what happened, and at the end of the day nobody died"

Dated:  29 May 2017

UPDATE 31 May 2017
We're grateful for extra clarity to a reader with some experience of an electoral department. They tell us our article may be confusing checks for identity with checks for validity, and we're happy to add their clarification. They told us:

A100% check of personal identifiers is not the same thing at all as a 20% check on a printed sample.

The 20% check on the printed sample usually takes place at the printer's premises, on the "raw" product

Checking of personal identifiers compares signatures and dates of birth on the completed forms, to those which are held on computer for each Postal Voter.

This can only take place when the completed ballot packs are returned to the Council where, staff then make a 100% check of personal identifiers.

However, the 100% check only takes place on those ballots which make it through the initial process.

Usually the ballot packs are opened daily, and any numbers that are mismatched with the number on the form are provisionally rejected, as are any ballot papers that are returned without the accompanying papers, or papers returned without the ballot papers (We're told this sort of thing does happen quite a bit)

The ones with bits missing get matched up if and when the missing bits arrive but it's a time consuming job, and especially difficult when working under pressure. In a council the size of Fylde there will probably be hundreds that have missing bits to match up in the normal course of events.

So with the numbering error, Fylde is probably not having to check not a few hundreds of postal votes that are wrong for one reason or another, they are having to check  ALL the postal votes.



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