Watchdog launches inquiry into chaos at polling stations

The electoral Commission announced yesterday that it will launch an investigation into why thousands of people were unable to cast their votes during one of the most chaotic general elections in recent memory.

At polling booths up and down the country, scores of constituents were turned away because election officials failed to process their ballots quickly enough to meet the 10pm deadline that officially draws all voting to an end.

Problems were worst in densely populated urban areas, where high numbers of people work long hours and tend to head to the polls towards the end of the day.

Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watson admitted that the country's "Victorian" voting system had been close to breaking point because of the high turnout. Yesterday, the Commission issued a statement saying officials would conduct an investigation into what went wrong.

"It is a cause for serious concern that many people who wanted to vote were unable to do so by 10pm when polls closed," the statement said. "There should have been sufficient resources allocated to ensure that everyone who wished to vote was able to do so."

Turnout for the 2010 election was higher than previous years at around 65 per cent, compared to 61.4 per cent in 2005 and 59.4 per cent in 2001, which was an historic low. But this year's figure is still well below the turnouts of the 1970s, which peaked at 77 per cent.

This year's general election has also been marred by an unprecedented number of electoral fraud accusations. The Metropolitan Police is investigating two cases of electoral fraud in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Ealing in London and is assessing a further 23 claims across the capital.

Greater Manchester Police have also confirmed that they are looking into electoral fraud in Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester, Blackburn and Bolton. Many of the allegations revolve around postal ballot claims – a system that critics have long warned is open to abuse.

Despite the widespread concerns that fraudulent postal votes may have been used in key marginals with thin majorities, the Electoral Commission said yesterday that it would not launch a separate investigation into electoral fraud.

Voters who were unable to cast their ballots vented their frustration yesterday. More than 2,500 students at Sheffield Hallam University joined a Facebook group accusing election officials of discriminating against them in favour of permanent residents.

Staff at the St John's Ranmoor polling booth were forced to create two separate queues after they became overwhelmed by the numbers of people turning up to vote. Students said they remained unable to cast their votes while permanent residents were ushered to the front of a much shorter queue.

Dani Beckett, president of the university's students' union, said: "It was completely outrageous and a form of blatant discrimination. It was as if our votes didn't matter as much."

Sheffield City Council initially blamed the delays on students turning up late in the day without their polling cards, but last night they backtracked and admitted that they had failed to prepare adequately for the high turnout.

"We were faced with a difficult situation of a rising turnout – over 10 per cent more than the last general election – we accept we got it wrong at a few polling stations and appreciate this caused concern and upset for residents," a spokesman said.

There were further reports of voters being turned away from polling stations in Liverpool, Manchester, London and Newcastle.

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