Liverpool’s Returning Officer on ‘major operation’ election

Liverpool Council is taking measures to ensure people aren’t left disenfranchised by new voter ID requirements during tomorrow’s landmark local elections.

From 7am to 10pm on Thursday, more than 330,000 people across the city will have the opportunity to make their voice heard at the ballot box as for the first time, every single one of the local authority seats is up grabs. Around 300 candidates are standing in 64 newly drawn wards across Liverpool tomorrow, which will form the new electoral map for the next four years.

In her role as interim chief executive, Theresa Grant also has the crucial position of returning officer and overall responsibility to ensure the polls run smoothly. She told the LDRS how running elections for many years has become one of her “favourite parts of the job” in local government.

She said, “I have to admit,  I love elections. It’s very task and finish focused, and it’s very strict as well.”

Tomorrow’s vote is arguably the most important and unpredictable in Liverpool’s modern history. Alongside new wards and councillor numbers, voter ID changes mean photographic identification is required at the polling station.

Ms Grant said the local authority had tried to get on the front foot in ensuring voters knew where they stood. She said, “We’ve done everything we can to make sure people know what that means, on the polling cards, there’s maps, and identification of the new stations. 

“We’ve put a lot out on social media. We’ve got a good, strong message out there.

“It will be a challenge if people turn up without their voter id. They’ll be disenfranchised, which would be a real shame.”

The interim chief executive, who has a long history in local government, from Trafford Council to Northamptonshire, said Liverpool had done “absolutely everything we possibly can do”  to help people come with the right documentation.

She added, “Even if they have ID and it’s out of date, we will still accept that as long as the picture is not 40 years old. We’re trying to make it as fair as possible and as democratic as possible.”

Some have been left confused by the changes to voter ID requirements, with some complaining that certain forms are allowed instead of others. Ms Grant highlighted a key distinction to look out for.

She said, “We have an extra complication, I think in Liverpool,  and that is people can’t use the Merseytravel pass and they may think they can. It has to say it’s approved By HM Government, otherwise you can’t use it. A Merseytravel card actually doesn’t.

“We’ve tried to write out to everybody who has a Merseytravel pass to tell them because it would be an absolute shame if people turn up. We are trying to take other precautions like going out and speaking to people in the queue, making sure they have their identification before they come in to vote.”

While the vote takes place over 15 hours tomorrow, we won’t know the makeup of the new council until Friday evening, with ballots being counted from 213 polling stations the day after at Wavertree Tennis Centre. Ms Grant said, “We start verification at the count centre and that is, you know, quite a complex process. 

“We open the boxes, we make sure that everything is very transparent, so agents and candidates will be able to view that opening, and then we verify the numbers in the boxes.

“On that night, we don’t do any kind of counting for candidates. We just verified that the numbers all match up and that’s a really complex process. 

“Then the real fun starts on Friday morning when we start counting.” As part of the changes to the city, some of the newly drawn wards will have two members, while other three. 

The returning officer said in counting the ballots, staff will use an exercise known as a grass skirt, where votes are stuck onto a large sheet of paper to tally them all up. With a total of 304 candidates, results are expected to come in thick and fast on Friday, with Ms Grant preparing staff from across the council to play their part. 

She said, “We’ve got skilled count managers, skilled count supervisors, a lot of support staff, a lot of our democratic services team there to make sure results go out quickly, and our comms team who are crucial on that particular occasion. I try to encourage as many council staff as possible to take part.

“Not all the staff will be council staff, but I try and make sure, because it’s our democratic process in action.”

Ms Grant said the staging and running the election is a “major operation” with staff required overnight at the count centre to keep an eye on the boxes before tallying begins. The returning officer said this would help her “sleep better” the night before, knowing the ballots are safe.

Comparing running an election here compared to her other postings, Ms Grant said: “I think it’s more complex because it’s new to Liverpool in the way it’s being done. It’s bigger in scale, so we’ve had to scale things up and I’ve had to look at the layout of how it’s going to go.

“There’ll be lots of new, new members elected and I’d like them to get the right impression straight off that we’re a professional council that is delivering a high quality service, and that will shine through if we deliver a really efficient election.”


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