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Eric Pickles calls for the Electoral Commission to give Returning Officers an "unambiguous steer" that not counting votes on General Election Night would be in defiance of Parliament

SaveElectionNight graphic I noted earlier in the week that the latest amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill appears to give a massive amount of leeway to Returning Officers wanting to delay general election counts until the Friday morning - unless the Electoral Commission issues robust guidance to them in line with Parliament's will in favour of Thursday night counts.

However, According to the Electoral Commission's latest briefing, it will only issue that guidance once the Bill is enacted - which is only likely to be in the couple of days before Parliament is dissolved, thereby creating an even smaller window of time for Returning Officers to finalise the planning for the count.

The fact is that all sides of the Commons united in favour of Thursday night counts and Returning Officers should be told to plan to do just that.

Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles is highly concerned about the Electoral Commission's attitude to this and is all the more perplexed about its priorities given that it has just launched a consultation on holding referendums (with a deadline of 14th April) when it is unclear whether Parliament is going to pass any legislation for a referendum, not least because there is no cross-party agreement on the matter (whereas there is a consensus on Thursday night counts).

As such, he has today written to the chairman of the Electoral Commission asking that the consultation on referendums be withdrawn until after the general election and that the Commission's time be spent instead on making it clear to Returning Officers that they should be expected to count votes on the night of the general election.

Here's what he has to say in his letter:

Eric Pickles 2 2010 "Parliament, with cross-party consent, has introduced legislative changes to ensure that general election counts commence with four hours of close of poll. There is a legal duty for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance to Returning Officers.

"However, in your briefing on the Report Stage of the Bill, sent to MPs on 2 March 2010, the Commission said:

“The Electoral Commission will issue Guidance for Returning Officers on any changes to the Parliamentary Elections Rules as soon as possible once the Bill receives Royal Assent”.

"Given the Bill is only like to receive Royal Assent on dissolution of Parliament and the commencement of the general election, this is leaving it very late. It would be sensible for the Commission to be consulting now on draft guidance, with a view to publishing final guidance after Royal Assent. I appreciate that there is a genuine case for a shorter consultation period given the last-minute nature of these legislative changes, yet the need to change electoral law has resulted from the unilateral and unjustified decisions of unaccountable Returning Officers to abandon long-standing electoral practices.

"I would be grateful if you could confirm what the Electoral Commission’s timetable is for this consultation, and I would perhaps suggest you may wish to re-allocate resources that would otherwise be devoted to the referendum."

Mr Pickles then cited the stated positions from both Government and Opposition front benches in the Commons favour of Thursday night counts before concluding:

"In this context, the Electoral Commission should make very clear to Returning Officers that, with perhaps the exception of the most geographically remote parts of the United Kingdom, they should be actively planning to count their Parliamentary election on election night. The Commission should be giving a clear and unambiguous steer to Returning Officers who announced Friday counts that they should now make the organisational changes to revert back to Thursday evening counts.

"I would be grateful if you could let me know whether you disagree with such a recommendation. I would also request that the Commission update its records on when Returning Officers are planning to commence their general election counts. If the Electoral Commission or Returning Officers intend to defy Parliament, there is still time for the Bill to be amended to make it more robust so that Parliament’s democratically expressed wishes can be duly implemented."

Jonathan Isaby


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