Nothing to declare
How does a candidate vote for himself but still end up with zero votes?
This piece is the final rerun of a short series of revised articles from The Political Medway archives. From next month, Mondays will bring exclusive one-one interviews, retrospective essays about Medway, and other interesting explorations. But for now, we review what happened in Rainham North during the 2015 local elections, and why it needs to be reviewed.
Note: This is a combination of a number of earlier pieces posted on The Political Medway in 2015, and can be seen here and here.
The 2015 local election was set to be one of interesting results. Since 2003, Medway Council has been Conservative-run. But 2015 saw group members defecting to UKIP, and two naïve bloggers really believed that by the end of the 2015 count, Medway Council would return to No Overall Control (NOC), as it had been between 1998-2003.
Planning starts for an election count as early as six or seven months prior, so the 2023 clock is already ticking. Planning involves several different members of staff who undertake activities on top of their substantive posts. A rough estimate would be 500 hours worked across several teams in planning and on the night itself. The costs for a count during local elections are in the order of £70,000 and the local authority is responsible for funding the entirety of those costs.
By the end of the 2015 count, there was little to talk about though. The Liberal Democrats had lost their council seats, while UKIP and the Conservatives had made small gains. Labour stood still.
Whatever intrigue had been promised, there was nothing more to talk about, was there?
Except perhaps in one small corner of our towns.
Rainham North, a two-councillor ward, looked potentially interesting as it was an area where one councillor had defected to UKIP.
Voters in Rainham North had ten candidates to choose from, with the primary players being David Carr and Martin Potter for the Conservatives, and Vaughn Hewett, who had recently defected to UKIP. None of the other candidates standing were expected to trouble the electorate too much.
At the time, I had said “Hewett’s choice to join UKIP is an interesting one, especially as it’s not with support of the seemingly better organised Rochester & Strood UKIP. Will it lead to UKIP taking the ward? Or Labour taking the seat? No.”
In an excellent example of hedging one’s bets, Ed had also commented “the wildcard here is Vaughan Hewett’s defection to UKIP. Traditionally a safe Conservative ward, the question is whether his name alone will be able to see him through. I think it will, but it’s not entirely out of the question that the ward will turn completely blue again.”
In the end, there was no such drama at the top of the results.
Rainham North – David Carr (Con), Martin Potter (Con)
Okay, but was it at least a really close result and therefore we’d been right that Rainham North was a marginal ward to watch?
Not really, no.
So what brought attention to Rainham North in 2015?
For context, it is worth noting that while TUSC didn’t exactly set the ballot box alight across Medway, they did pull in votes in every other ward where they stood. In several wards, they scored over 200 votes. Even in their worst performing ward, they received 37 votes. So one ward with a result of 0 certainly raises some eyebrows.
Of course, the media flocked to the story. The Medway Messenger were straight on the case:
TUSC spokesman Chas Berry said: “We think it’s impossible for him to get zero votes. He lives in the ward, as do several members of his family.
“We’ve had emails from people giving their ballot numbers saying they definitely voted for him.”
Mr Berry said: “It won’t affect the outcome in Rainham North, but it does raise questions about the rest of the vote.
“You think, if that was wrong, what else was wrong?
The story even went national, with the Daily Mirror covering it:
A total of 8,464 votes were cast in the ward, with two Tories David Carr (2,247 votes) and Martin Potter (1,910 votes) elected, and just 13 voting slips rejected as void.
Speaking this week, Mr Dennis - a train conductor for Southeastern - said the result was 'obviously wrong' as he had voted for himself and that his father and wife had pledged their support too.
He said: "I was gutted to be honest - it was a bit humiliating, especially at work."
The Metro got in on the action too:
TUSC spokesman Ivor Riddle also called for a recount on his blog, saying that ‘Paul Dennis and anyone who voted for him [have] been disenfranchised by the local authority’.
However, council chief executive Neil Davies said that he had double-checked the records and that they’d confirmed that no-one had voted for the candidate.
The story even went global, with an Australian news site picking it up.
The events were, of course, covered on Medway’s premier local politics blog at the time:
Members of Medway Trade Union Socialist Coalition (TUSC) were in Rainham precinct following the zero vote result they got in the local elections for their candidate Paul Dennis in Rainham North.
We even spoke to TUSC campaigners exclusively, during a brief pivot to video:
We asked Paul Dennis the crucial question: “How do you know that you voted for you?” Dennis replied, “because I went into the ballot box and put a cross against my name”.
Which to be honest, sounds fairly conclusive.
Chas Berry of TUSC implored the people of Rainham that day, to frankly give a damn, “whether you voted for Medway TUSC or Paul Dennis in Rainham North, how do you feel that your vote may have been lost?”
Once TUSC started down this particular rabbit hole, it didn’t end there as an additional irregularity was also found. On the candidate nomination papers, it was discovered that one nominator had nominated three candidates, one more than the number actually allowed.
TUSC protested the issue at the next full council meeting, where helpfully it seems we were still going through our short-lived video phase:
With three people nominated, one of the nominations arguably shouldn’t have been allowed to stand. The return argument is that if the discrepancy had been found before the election, the party machines would have relatively easily found replacement nominations. But that isn’t the point, is it? Otherwise, why have nominations at all? Instead, just assume everybody can get the required number and save time.
Leader of Medway Labour Vince Maple acknowledged that the nominations were not allowed, but also at the time stated that election law is not in favour of anybody looking at this post-election whether we like that or not. “That is a challenge that we find ourselves in. I don’t want Medway Council to be on Have I Got News For You for the wrong reasons”. He went on “the problem that democracy has, not TUSC, not Medway Council, but democracy is that the law says very little can be done if nothing is done on the night”.
So who are TUSC? They are the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, set up in 2010 to provide an umbrella for independent socialists and trade unionists to stand in elections.
Their aim in 2015 was to offer an alternative of the left for working-class people who were opposed to the austerity agenda of the Tories but had lost confidence in Labour as a governing party. All of their candidates pledged to fight austerity.
This was the first time Paul Dennis stood as a candidate.
TUSC insist that agent Alec Price did challenge the vote on the night but was told that he could not call for a recount as the outcome for the winner would not have changed.
At the time The Political Medway reported:
The Medway TUSC group took legal advice and discussed the situation with the National Agent Clive Heenskirk, who researched electoral law and advised that the legal position was a matter of private law and not going to change the result, even if it raises concerns about the whole count.
Paul and four other residents were all willing to sign a legal affidavit and this would have to go through the High Court, which would require the hiring of a QC, which would have significant costs.
Medway Labour’s Vince Maple recognises that this is an issue caused by a long count and Rainham North being the 21st of 22 results, and that electoral law does little to support if nothing is done on the night.
A petition through the online platform 38 Degrees attracted over 850 signatures:
Mr Dennis’ agent, Alec Price said: “We’re an anti-austerity party and it appears Medway Council’s austerity policies have disenfranchised every TUSC voter in Rainham North. By overstretching staff at a chaotic count, Medway Council have failed in their fundamental duty to ensure that every vote counts. This raises serious questions about the democratic process. No-one knows how many ballots have not been counted“.
Minutes from the August full meeting of Medway Council had the following exchange during public questions:
Paul Dennis of Rainham asked the Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services, Councillor Mackness, the following question:
“Can you explain what happened to my vote and to that of several of the constituents of Rainham North who voted for me in the Medway Council elections on 7th May 2015?”
The Portfolio Holder for Corporate Services, Councillor Mackness stated that:
his answer would be in the context of a particularly complex election which took place in May with 3 polls over 3 constituencies. In the local election alone over 280,000 votes were cast with over 125,000 ballot papers.
He stated that it was for the Returning Officer, to deal with questions which have been raised about the elections. The Returning Officer was responsible for the organisation and conduct of the Elections, and this was totally separate from Council business.
Councillor Mackness advised that he understood that Mr Dennis had already been in communication with the Returning Officer about this matter and had received a response confirming that the records were double-checked on the night of the election, and the paperwork confirmed a zero return.
He stated that strict rules governed elections and once results had been declared, without the direction of a court, there was nothing further that the Returning Officer could do to investigate this matter and this had been notified to Mr Dennis in correspondence.
Medway Council’s response did not change:
“I can confirm that having double-checked our records, the paperwork confirms a zero return for TUSC in Rainham North. Whilst I accept this is unusual, now that the result has been declared, I am afraid there is nothing else we can do to investigate the matter further as we are bound by the rules of election law.” - Neil Davies, Acting Returning Officer
So what is the election law that is being cited and how does it relate to what occurred here?
Under the Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England &Wales) Rules 2006:
(section 46) specifies that a candidate or their election agent may, if present when the counting or any re-count of the votes is taking place, require the Returning Officer to have the votes re-counted or again re-counted.
The Returning Officer may refuse to do so if in their opinion the request is unreasonable no step shall be taken on the completion of the counting or any re-count of votes until the candidates and election agents present at its completion have been given a reasonable opportunity to exercise the right conferred by this rule.
In practice, at Medway counts, candidates and election agents are called by an announcement in the hall to gather with the Returning Officer who shows them the draft result prior to the intention to declare it so that they may seek clarification or ask for a re-count.
Once a result is declared, the counted and rejected ballot papers, along with other election materials have to be sealed up and forwarded to the proper officer, who then has to retain them for one year and then destroy them.
The only exception is if an order is made by a county court if the court is satisfied by evidence on oath that the order is required for the purpose of instituting or maintaining a prosecution for an offence in relation to ballot papers, or for the purpose of an election petition.
Specifically, that act also states that, unless an order is made by a county court, no one is allowed to inspect any rejected or counted ballot papers. Therefore, unless there was an election petition, there could not be a re-count of the ballot papers in 2015.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 set out the process by which a local election may be questioned on the grounds that the person whose election is questioned was at the time of the election disqualified, was not duly elected, or on the ground that the election was avoided by corrupt or illegal practices and by whom and in what circumstances.
In terms of questionable nomination papers, the Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England &Wales) Rules 2006 sets out that the Returning Officer’s decision that a nomination paper is valid shall be final and shall not be questioned in any proceeding whatsoever, except other than by way of an election petition. During ordinary office hours on any day, other than weekends, bank holidays etc, and after the latest time for delivery of nomination papers and before the date of the poll, any person may inspect and take copies of, or extracts from, nomination papers and consents to nomination. Nomination papers are among the election documents that are retained for one year and then destroyed.
There is no right of objection to a nomination at a local election.
As such, what can candidates learn from this situation heading into the 2023 Local elections?
Chas Berry of TUSC had the following advice, warning to
“not to take the counting and fair administration of votes for granted. If possible, attend the count and watch every table. If you know for certain that people have voted for you … and you and they don't appear during the count, point it out straight away. I would also urge parties to ensure that the process of collection and storing of boxes from polling stations is scrutinised more carefully.”
Medway Council advise that
“as election law can be extremely complicated, prospective candidates and their agents read the advice and guidance on the electoral commission website: www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/voter”
All candidates might be prudent to follow this advice as we head toward our local elections next year, just in case someone else ends up with zero votes on the night.
Next week is our exclusive one-on-one interview with the Leader of Medway Council and Conservative councillor Alan Jarrett. It’s incredibly illuminating and will be for paid supporters only, so if you’ve been considering upgrading, now’s the time.
Steven Keevil is a former educator turned frozen food data analyst. He is currently recuperating from having his gallbladder removed, and is awaiting the call up for Medway’s gallbladder awareness campaign. He was a co-founder of The Political Medway, and still manages to watch hundreds of films a year. He highly recommends Prey.
Steven listened to no music whilst writing this, but recommends the following books that he has finished recently: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alan de Botton, To be Taught if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers, Grandeville L’Integrale by Bryan Talbot.