Pivotal

Author

Cahir Hughes

Cahir Hughes

Published

After almost six weeks of campaigning, the UK general election is nearly upon us. As the public gets ready to head to the polls tomorrow, Thursday 4 July, the Electoral Office and Electoral Commission has been busy behind the scenes ensuring this general election runs smoothly. 

As Head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, I have experienced my fair share of elections, and the level of hard work that is involved. From electoral administration to finance rules, candidates and campaigners, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye when it comes to ensuring elections run smoothly.

So, what exactly happens in the run–up to an election?  

Admin, and lots of it

Once the Prime Minister announces that a UK parliamentary general election will take place, a lot of work begins to unfold. This includes dissolving Parliament, new deadlines for the public to register to vote, dates to submit a postal or proxy vote application if you’re not going to be around for the election, and much more. This also includes deadlines for parties and individuals to submit their nominations of who is standing in each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies across the UK.

There are also a lot of financial rules around a general election such as candidates’ spending limits for campaign material such as posters or leaflets. All spending must be recorded and reported. 

Donations of over £50 to candidates must be reported, ensuring transparency about who is supporting someone’s campaign. At general elections, parties standing candidates are required to do weekly pre–poll reporting of the donations or loans over £11,180 to the central party.

Abuse of candidates – enough is enough

Robust political debate is an important part of the electoral process. However, on far too many occasions, the line is crossed. Abuse on social media and threats of physical violence are unfortunately becoming a part of the election campaign, particularly towards female candidates. 

Ahead of this election, the Electoral Commission, alongside the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Jo Cox Foundation, have called for a campaign free from abuse in Northern Ireland. 

Our report on the May 2023 local elections in Northern Ireland highlighted that 50% of candidates reported experiencing threats, abuse and or intimidation. Through our research, we recognise far too many candidates are facing harassment and abuse which can deter candidates from campaigning or standing altogether. This in turn significantly impacts voter choice and access to information. 

We have produced joint guidance to help candidates understand when behaviour goes beyond political debate and may be unlawful.  

When and where to vote

Polling day for the UK general election will take place on Thursday 4 July. Polling stations will be open from 7am to 10pm and it’s essential you know where yours is located, which is listed on your polling card. If you are unsure where your polling station is located, you can also check via the Electoral Commission’s website. 

Northern Ireland is home to 605 polling stations and there are expected to be over 4,000 polling staff and 1,900 count staff working during the election. 

More than 25,000 postal vote applications have also been issued in Northern Ireland, a 50% increase since the last general election five years ago.

Don’t forget your ID

To vote, you must bring an accepted form of ID to cast your vote on polling day. For the first time at a general election, voters in Great Britain will need to show photo ID to receive their ballot paper in polling places, whereas in Northern Ireland, voter ID has been a requirement for many years. 

It doesn’t matter if your ID is out of date, you can still use it at the polling station if the photo is like how you look now. For a full list of accepted photo ID, visit the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland’s website

After polls close

The count happens straight after polls close at 10pm and will continue through the night. The Chief Electoral Officer has overall responsibility for the counting of the votes which will take place across three locations in Belfast, Craigavon and Magherafelt. 

The Chief Electoral Officer’s role includes ensuring that ballot boxes are safely transported from polling stations to the count venue in a secure and timely manner, and that those recruited to count ballot papers have been well trained in how to carry out their duties.

There are two stages to any election count. First, staff count the number of ballot papers in each ballot box to verify that they match with the numbers issued at the polling stations. Once this is completed, the number of ballot papers for each candidate is then counted. 

Several factors might impact how long it will take for the votes to be counted, for example the geography of the constituency and how long it takes to get the ballot boxes in from the polling stations, as well as the possibility of a recount. However, we should expect to see results from Northern Ireland being declared between 2am and 5am. 

Following the election

Once the election is over, the Electoral Commission will publish a report on how well–run the general election was and recommendations on what would improve future elections. We also publish information about donations to political parties, campaigners and other groups, and how much money they spent, as well as electoral data including the size of the electorate, turnout, the number of rejected ballot papers and information on postal voting.

Take part in democracy

It’s vital everyone takes part in democracy. Make sure you head to your local polling station tomorrow and cast your vote and remember, polls are open from 7am until 10pm, so don’t miss out!

Cahir Hughes is the Head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland. The Commission is the UK’s independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK and promotes public confidence in the democratic process. 

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