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S3E13 - Exploring a Victorian Election System with the UK Association of Electoral Administrators’ Peter Stanyon

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Peter Stanyon. He’s the Chief Executive for the Association of Election Administrators, or AEA, in the United Kingdom.

They spoke about the complexities of the UK's election system with its limited time frame for some elections, changes in voter ID law, and the challenges of adding modernization on top of a system originally designed in the 1800s.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Producer: Katie Quinn
Digital Producer: Mark Johnson

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Peter Stanyon: The law that we use is based on the 1872 Ballot Act, and I think the understanding is if Queen Victoria were alive today and walked into a polling station, she’d recognize most of what's going on: a stubby pencil, a piece of paper with a tin ballot box sort of thing.

 [High Turnout Wide Margins Introduction]

Brianna Lennon: Welcome to another exciting episode of High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Brianna Lennon. I am the County Clerk for Boone County, and with me is my co-host –

Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And today we are exploring another international elections episode and with us is –

Peter Stanyon: Peter Stanyon, Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators in the UK.

Brianna Lennon: You know, we always ask our guests, the first question is how you end up working in elections. So, what was your pathway to getting involved?

Peter Stanyon: I think as with most electoral administrators in the UK, I fell into elections because they're tied into local authorities in Great Britain. It’s a function undertaken within the council effectively. I just happened to be there when a vacancy appeared, and as with most electoral administrators – once you've got that bug, you can't get rid of it. And 34 years later, here I am still delivering on the electoral side of things. So, there's no plan. There was no “from primary schools all the way through to university,” it was very much a case of you can almost say “right place, wrong time,” in some respects at times, but no. That’s how I ended up into it. Fell into the job and love it even today.

Eric Fey: So Peter, could you take a couple of minutes and explain to the Americans in the audience, at least, in broad strokes, the structure of election administration in the UK?

Peter Stanyon: Yeah, it's quite a unique structure. We do have an electoral commission in the UK that came into being in the year 2000, but they're an advisory body principally. So, elections themselves, very historically – set up back in Victorian times on the basis of the local authorities across the whole of the UK. There's in the region just shy of 400 local authorities, and each of those has to appoint a returning officer for elections, an electoral registration officer for the registration side of things, and then, effectively, the elections are run at that level – so, if we take, for example, the forthcoming parliamentary general election, whenever that may be called, it will be called by Parliament and then it's run by the local authority structures underneath that before returning the members of parliament to the House. So, everything is done at that lower level of government administration being led by the law as written, obviously, by the House of Commons, House of Lords – UK Parliament.

Eric Fey: Peter, could you talk a little bit about if there is a typical election office in the UK? I mean, do they work full time in the capacity of administering elections in the electoral, the voters roll? Do they normally have employees that work for them full time? Or what does the typical office in the UK look like?

Peter Stanyon: Typical office – I don't think we can define a typical office because it will vary from area to area. You've got the range of – if you take a London Authority, for example, much larger authorities. You will have, typically, a team of four or five administrators solely concerned with electoral registration and elections. The manager themselves may well be, actually have other responsibilities. I, for example, had about five or six different areas of responsibility, including elections solely because it's a way of actually paying more money to those to stay with the authorities. There's very much a shortage of key staff.

But in smaller authorities, you may well have other roles taken on board, as well. You will always have somebody who is there specifically responsible for the administration of the electoral process, and that is one of the big areas at the moment that our local authorities – although they're very, very cash strapped – going forward, they are very, very conscious of the changes coming through that makes it more of an electoral registration process, all the way through into, beyond polling day itself.

As far as the support is concerned – all of the polling station staff, accounting staff, those who deal with postal voting will all be brought in on temporary, on temporary basis – per election. So, again, typically if I take my background, my 100 polling stations, I'm talking 500, 600 staff solely employed for one day to do that time with all the training, the recruitment and the like ahead of that. So, there is no such thing as “typical,” but effectively, there will always be, in every single UK authority, local authority, a core of those who've got the experience and expertise. Then that is actually built up as we go forwards with the volunteers coming in to provide the actual delivery mechanisms on polling day, in advance of polling day itself.

Eric Fey: So Peter, talk a little bit about the role your organization plays in assisting administrators in the UK. In the United States, we have associations on the state level in almost every state, and then we have a couple nationwide associations of election administrators, and, you know, things are done so differently across the states in the United States. And I assume there [in the UK] because your elections are run at the local level, I assume, you know, because of different sizes, different, you know, rural and urban and things like that, you see somewhat of the same thing. So, tell folks a little bit about the AEA, and what role that plays in things like implementing photo ID and other administrative processes.

Peter Stanyon: Yeah, the association was actually set up in 1987 – a year before I actually joined electoral services. So, I'm one of the longer-term members of the association. It was set up because, effectively, as will be the case for many of your listeners, the law book governs how you run elections. It’s either yes or it’s no, and there are those gray areas – there's nothing before the association was set up, it was local government officers who thought, “We just need to start sharing good practice, we need to start talking about how would you deal with a situation in, as you say, a urban area, rural area, whatever the case may be,” recognizing that each individual team is responsible for delivering to the rules in the book effectively. It’s developed since then. So, we predate the Electoral Commission by 13 years, but we work very closely with them.

The role of the AEA is really no different to what it was in those early days. It’s about – if we just take for example, our training, we deliver all the training in the UK for electoral administrators, except for that that's delivered by the Electoral management software systems on their own individual systems. But the training is primarily delivered by people who deliver elections. So, it's very much an understanding of what the practical implications are, alongside the theoretical way that elections should be run. So, we’re in a very good position, as far as trying to ensure that that good practice – “Have you tried this? You might want to try that” is rolled out. So, that's where the value comes into that.

We're not the same organization we were when we got set up. We're very much now – we're not a lobbying organization, but we are “the critical friends,” we believe, of governments across the UK to actually point out the pros and cons and how do you deliver policy change within polling stations within offices? How will it affect electors as much as it will affect administrators trying to deliver.

So, if you take the voter ID situation. [It’s] a good example. A lot of work that we did was about the flows within polling stations. How do you make sure you're recording the data that the government and the Electoral Commission want to actually analyze how successful or not the system has been? How does that impinge on the actual delivery of the election? Because sometimes the new policy overrides everything. You forget you've got an election to run. The election hasn't changed since 1872 – a lot of the procedures that we've got – but all the morphing on top of that, the layering, that's where we can come in and actually advise both governments in terms of what the risks are and what the mitigations may well be, but also it’s talking about [with] administrators about how can they almost get through this process?

We've got a huge amount of change coming with the Elections Act 2022 that’s rolling out now. It's not just voter ID, there's lots of other anti-fraud measures in there. There's a whole layer, as I've talked about, of change that's coming through. We are working very closely with administrators, talking good practices, good ideas, how do we get this working in reality. So that ultimately – I, as a voter walking through the door, can show my ID, will be able to put my ballot paper in the box the normal way I would do so without any of the issues that could potentially be there had we not worked through those things. So, very much a practical organization in terms of actually: One – making sure the policy is deliverable in the main, but secondly – how can we make that better for those who are the people who actually push the buttons, move the paper around, arrange all the arrangements that need to be done in that way? So, a very practical, hands-on type of organization.

Brianna Lennon: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about, I know you alluded to the fact that the photo ID part was pretty controversial, what do you think – has there been a precipitating event or is it do, you think, more of the international conversation regarding fraud? What do you think has been driving a lot of the push for reform?

Peter Stanyon: Yeah, well, the narrative’s changed in the last year. It was only in May of last year that photo ID was required at polling stations. Now, in the UK, we don't have things such as national identity cards. It's very much a mishmash of the ID that can be presented. Primarily, it was passports, it was photo driving licenses and older persons’ bus passes. There are 22 different forms of ID that can potentially be shown at polling stations themselves.

I think we can go back to one particular local authority in London where there was some significant issues with regards to electoral fraud, primarily driven by candidates and parties not by the administration of the process. That authority is Tower Hamlets, which is close to the city of London. Following that incident – around about 15, 20 years ago, I think, from memory now – a report was produced by the Secretary of State, at the time, but now Lord Eric Pickles, that highlighted a number of issues around potential fraud opportunities within UK electoral law. [It’s] very much a trust-based system, has always been a trust-based system, but because of a number of factors that trust was being sort of, was leaning more to the potential of fraud coming in. And there was actual fraud – there were cases. In fact, the mayor of that particular burrow was debarred from office five years because of the instances that took place.

That report was informing, but that's formed the basis of all of the Elections Act changes that are coming through – whether they are still relevant, whether it's more a perception rather than it being an actual case taking place – it’s the debate that's going on. So, taking voter ID as a really good example. The perception was that “personation,” as it’s known in the UK, took place in polling stations – very, very few recorded cases. But then you could also argue the counter argument. He says, “Well, it may well be that they're not being picked up at the station rather than not being reported in that way.” So, there's – certainly the perception of fraud was raised within the decision makers’ minds – and, from that, the intention was then to bring in the voter ID to take that away. We can map it all the way back to things like postal voting – where the original system [when it] was rolled out, was again, trust-based, but because actual fraud took place in a couple of areas in the UK, not across the whole board, but in a couple of areas – additional security measures have to be introduced to ensure that, actually, that perception was taken away in those areas.

So, I've used that word quite a lot, “perception.” It's huge changes, but I think it is arguable whether the actual evidence is there to confirm that the actual outcome would have been the outcome without the actual report and the views taken about one particular member of Parliament at the time who was doing that investigation back in Tower Hamlets.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-break]

Eric Fey: Peter, what role, if any, do the membership of your organization have in crafting these policies? Does the electoral – now I forget [the name] – the commission, the election commission or Parliament – Do they consult with your membership when they're crafting these policies and in laws?

Peter Stanyon: I think it's fair to say yes and no. We're not – our members are not policymaking, they’re a non-policymaking body. There are views and we have certainly gone on the record in several areas where we believe that government – whoever that may well be – takes forward change, the very high level one that has been around for a while. Whereas I think I made reference to this earlier, the law that we use is based on the 1872 Ballot Act, and I think the understanding is if Queen Victoria were alive today and walked into a polling stations, she’d recognize most of what's going on – a stubby pencil and a piece of paper with a tin ballot box sort of thing. There's nothing wrong with that, but the Election Commission actually says a number of changes need to take place. They did their report six, seven years ago now and it has never gone anywhere. So, a lot of the things that we will be pressing for change on are more around the granular parts of the process – not should there be voter ID, not should there be more things around postal voting.

When it comes to the actual, when a government has made his decision on policy, we then get involved. We are very fortunate to be at the table where often they will show us the draft secondary legislation, the draft primary legislation. We will go through and actually flag up – “we identify issues here. How about this alternative options?” But ultimately, with them being for the government and they’re civil servants to determine what the actual legislation says. We don't always get on or agree, I should say, we often have very heated disagreements about the way policy is rolled out – ultimately, that's what governs, therefore we're there more about “how does that deliver, deliver going forward?”

So, in terms of incoming administrations - it varies. So, as I say, as a general election is coming up, if there's a change in government, we may well get spoken to before the actual election to say, “We're thinking of doing this. How can we make that work?” But that's very much down to the political masters, shall we say, within those parties as to how they want to flesh out their policy, their ideas going forward in terms of their manifestos and that. So, we are very much involved in the details to make sure that it is practical to work going forwards.

Brianna Lennon: I feel like I would be very remiss, since you just said that the process is a piece of paper and a pencil and a box – how do you do counting of the ballots in the UK? And have there been conversations about changing it?

Peter Stanyon: There’s often conversation about changing it, in fact, we've gone the opposite way. In London, the mayoral and wider constituency elections – until this year coming were counted through optical voting machines. So, there were three contests. So, you still mark by pencils onto a ballot paper, but they were counted through scanners. But that's now changed because the system has gone back to [indecipherable] the post system rather than the proportional system that was there previously. Again, that was part of the Elections Act.

How do we do it? It’s dead easy – you got a piece of paper, you sort it into the right piles, and then you come up with results. So, it's all done in centralized locations. It’s not done in individual polling stations. So, my background, when I worked at a local authority, I had in the region of 100 polling stations that all come back to a central location. You balanced the figures to make sure what you've got back is what you're expecting back with the verification process and a straightforward sort, and here are lots of different ways of counting depending on whether it's a very simple elections in terms of a first past the post one vacancy – it’s just sorting between the candidates – that’s dead easy. Where you're electing three from 12, for example, there are a number of different methods that are used, but they're all very transparent. They're all very tried and tested, and within, I would say, in most instances, four hours from the close of poll – you’ve got a set of results.

So, it's quite an efficient way of doing it, as well. Generally done overnight, it can be held back to the following day, but it's a very, very simple process of acquiring… and quite a safe process.

Has it – one of the big areas of contention, at the moment, is interference with elections, and one of the advantages of the UK system – because it's a piece, of by the time you get to a polling stations, it’s a piece of paper, a pencil, and it’s very difficult to tamper with that vote unless you got corrupt staff, for example. If you're dealing with the actual outside interference, it’s very difficult. If we were to bring in something like electronic voting or electronic counting or something along those lines, there's a greater chance of there being that interference. I think at the current stage, because of the levels of mistrust in terms of the electronic controls and things, we're further away from modernizing that side of the process then we have been for quite some time, because again, those members of parliament, those local councilors, they all know what a piece of paper and pencil looks like. And they're able to then see very clearly in front of them. It's an open, transparent, fair system going forward. You can recount, you can recount, recount – it's all there in front of you without having to tamper or go into code and things like that, which is the worry, I think that many of the decision makers have got going forwards.

Eric Fey: It is amazing to me, I guess, from an American perspective, the level of trust that exists in your system and a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to observe the parliamentary election in Sweden, and I would say it was a relatively similar dynamic there. Where these nonpartisan administrators, you know, from the local administration, were running elections, you know, we have more of an adversarial structure, I suppose, in the United States. So, that's fascinating to hear. Back to the point about the increased duties of the poll staff, and I assume that translates also to the full-time administrators. In the United States since – especially since the 2020 election – there's been a large turnover. For example, in Missouri, about a third of our county election administrators are new in their positions. Is that a similar dynamic in the UK? Have you seen more turnover? And, you know, we don't have a solution to it, but if you are seeing more turnover, have you all started talking about how you might remedy that?

Peter Stanyon: I think it is the same, I think that's probably one of the unfortunate fallouts from the Elections Act and the principle behind it, which I referred to earlier, in terms of the perception of fraud is coming in, rather than actual fraud. And that has put greater pressure on administrators certainly in some of those key areas, and, in terms of turnover of administrators – yeah, we've seen significant numbers now, higher numbers over the last couple of years than previously. Solely because, in some respects, the brute questions of if I’ve got the chance of taking an early retirement or running a system that's hugely complex and can bring adversarial elements to it, what am I going to do?

So, a lot of the – probably completely the wrong terminology, but the older generation, the older breed have begun to leave the profession. The danger with that is the experience of running elections is seeping out the system, as well. So, we take the challenges ahead for the second of May, which is the huge elections in England and Wales, and then the parliamentary general election at some stage, which will be called at 25 days’ notice. That's all they have – five weeks – to set up the whole system.

It's not so much the change that's coming because very competent administrators can deal with change, they can deal with what the process should be, but it goes back to the formation of the AEA, in a lot of respects. It’s not, it’s about how it should be. But how can we make that, you know, section A, section B and Section C – all work in tangent? A more experienced individual can do that because they, you know, “back in such and such we did this and work this round.” When you're dealing with very much a case of having to read what the law says and deliver it without that background experience, it makes life a lot more difficult. That's a huge risk, it's a risk that, again, is well recognized, and every mitigation under the sun has been considered, you know, trying to make it more of a what resources can you build around the core teams, but ultimately, an electoral services manager in a local authority is more important than the returning officer because they're doing the job 24/7. They understand the law, they know what the process is, they have to be protected. The returning officer has their name on all of the notices, and they've got that responsibility, but they're also got their other job in terms of running the local authority.

So to me, there is no answer, and if I had the answer, we'd be willing to share that with you. The saving grace, I suppose, is there's always someone at the end of the phone, there's always someone on the end of an email, a zoom call, whatever it might well be. Solely to be able to turn around and say, “I've got this problem. How do I deal with that?” But that's not the answer to it, but that’s part of the solution going forward. So very similar, but certainly not as adversarial as a, you know, far flung observer to the 2020 elections and the fallout from that. You know, election administrators in the US have my utmost sympathy with the pressure that has been layered on to them. But it's something starting to come in a little bit more in the UK solely because it’s such a strange time politically. I think that’s probably the best way of describing that.

Brianna Lennon: Do you think any of that will have an impact on the short amount of time that they have notice for to have an election? Because like you – if somebody said that to a county clerk here, I think they would freak out. If they said, you know, “You've got less than a month to figure all of this out,” and granted, yes, you know how to put the election together, but we're used to having more like 15, 16 weeks to get everything situated. With new people coming in, do you think they're gonna ask for more time?

Peter Stanyon: I have to say, I think it'll be the opposite. It was only two years ago that there was a debate in Parliament about reducing the timetable back to 17 working days, not the 25 working days, because it's to do with politics. It’s to do with the fact that we can get a message much, much more focused in a shorter period. The expenses of running elections – if you reduce the amount of time, it means the same budget can fund a lot more higher profile campaigning. Which we successfully fought that one back. Because the system, it used to be 17 working days, then postal vote on demand was introduced, when rolling registration was introduced, we've had voter ID now introduced. A big change to the system. The debate when it took place was talking about a system back in the 1980s, and yes, you could do it then, you can't do it now. There is absolutely no appetite at all. In fact, as an organization, we've been calling for a minimum 30-Day election and we'll be laughed out of court. The changes that are coming through on that Victorian system that I've talked about, without the, you know, lots of things have come in terms of all the modernisation that's taking place and registration to make it easier to register, easier to get yourself in position to cast your ballot to enfranchise. But nothing's being helped in terms of the actual voting process.

Eric Fey: I know we're getting short on time, but Peter, you mentioned the digitization of some voter registration and you know, online requests for postal ballots, so forth. Of course, in the United States, especially since 2016, there has been a lot of concern around election interference from foreign entities, persons hacking election websites, election servers, things like that. Has that been a focus for you all, as well?

Peter Stanyon: It has. It's a growing focus primarily because of the routes in, the register vote routes, the apps and voting online route is all a government led system, a government portal. And we have the assurances and the expectations that they will be very, very robust. In fact, the cybersecurity experts are all over that as far as those systems are concerned.

There's potential risk with regards to transfer of data between returning officers and their print supplier and things like that, but that is a minor risk, I would suggest, because it's still a paper-based system. I think the greater risk is more around the misinformation, AI coming into things, about the messages going out to voters – rather than the actual system itself.

The one worrying time I suppose for administrators is around 11, 12 days out from the poll when all of the deadlines occur for registering to vote, absentee voting, and the like. Ironically, when you get to polling day, if a system was hacked, it wouldn't make that great a difference because it's all on a piece of paper with little pencils all out in the community. So, you've got a pretty safe system when it comes to that side, which would be put at risk if technology came in more to do online voting or whatever the case may be. So yeah, they're all over it. There are risks, but the biggest single – well, the two biggest single risks are the government portal. You have to rely on the government security advisors to have that actually nailed down in terms of the routes into the local authorities and the misinformation, potential misinformation, which would affect how votes are cast, not the actual mechanism casting those votes, but very, very similar and rolling on the back of the last Presidential elections as a result of the the assertions being made at that time.

Eric Fey: Brianna, do you have anything else?

Brianna Lennon: I got all my questions answered. I really appreciate it. This has been really fun.

Eric Fey: Yeah.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey. A big thanks to KBIA and the Election Center for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith, managing producer is Aaron Hay, our associate producer is Katie Quinn, and our digital producer is Mark Johnson. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.