HC Deb 29 June 2000 vol 352 cc598-9W
Mr. Stephen Twigg

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what reports he has received from the Greater London returning officer on the election of the Mayor and Assembly for London; and if he will make a statement. [128464]

Mr. Hill

I have now had advice from the Greater London Returning Officer (GLRO) about the first election of the Mayor and Assembly for London. There were a number of innovations at the election designed to make voting more convenient and to speed up the counting process. These included electronic counting, early voting, opening polling stations an hour earlier than usual and sending a leaflet to every elector containing an election address from each candidate contesting the Mayoral election.

Two issues have emerged in relation to the count: the speed of the count and the number of votes classified as "rejected".

Although the count took a few hours longer than originally expected, the GLRO has stressed that Ministers can be satisfied that the first use of electronic counting in an election of this size and complexity went well. There were some technical problems with some scanning machines on the night, but a manual count would have taken many more days to complete. In all other respects the electronic counting system worked very well and fully in line with expectations.

A number of other factors also contributed to the slower than expected count. For example, there were a larger than expected number of ballot papers out-sorted by the scanning machines for manual checking, before they were entered into the system. It is also the case that as this was the first time that staff had used an electronic counting system in an election, they quite rightly took time to make sure that the new procedures were followed properly. These factors inevitably slow things up.

The other issue was the larger than expected number of electors who chose not to cast a vote in one or more of the elections. Each elector had four opportunities to vote—first choice for Mayor, second choice for Mayor, constituency assembly member and London Assembly Member—and each is recorded separately. If an elector chooses not to vote in any of the four ballots—as they have every right to do—this is recorded as a "rejected" vote even though the ballot paper was left blank. For example, if a voter selects a first choice for Mayor but not a second choice, and does not vote at all in the two Assembly elections, the system would record one valid vote and three "rejected" votes.

Over 6.5 million votes were cast by about 1.75 million electors. Around 0.5 million votes were recorded as "rejected". These were made up of multiple votes (where the voter had voted more than once in a column), papers where marks identified the voter, blanks where no vote had been cast and uncertain votes, where even after manual checking the voter's intention was still not clear.

The majority of votes classified as "rejected" simply record the fact that many electors chose not to use all the four votes at their disposal. Almost 300,000 people did not use their second preference vote for the Mayor, although they did give a first preference. About 130,000 did not cast vote for a constituency assembly member and about 70,000 did not cast a vote for a London assembly member. About 1 per cent. of ballot papers were "rejected" because they were either marked with multiple votes or had marks that identified the voter. This proportion is in line with other elections.

Over 3 per cent. of voters took advantage of early voting. Almost all of them welcomed the opportunity to vote early and said they would use it again if it is available. Just under half of those who used the facility said that they would not have voted on polling day.

About 3 per cent. of voters also took advantage of the extended polling hours on polling day and voted between 7am and 8am on polling day. In some polling stations 11 per cent. of voters voted in the first hour. Most were on their way to work and 20 per cent. said that they would not have been able to vote at another time on the day. More people preferred the polls to open an extra hour in the morning rather than later in the evening.

A leaflet containing election addresses for all 11 mayoral candidates was produced and delivered to every elector in London, as required by law.