This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"It's a fahhhkin conspiracy," belted one woman at Hackney Town Hall this morning to no one in particular. "This is what they want, to be able to stop us voting," she said, banging her fist on the reception desk as a crowd of confused and angry would-be voters swelled behind her.
I say "would be" because they might not be able to vote at all today, despite doing everything right in the run-up.
Several news outlets are now reporting on the increasingly "angry and chaotic scenes" in the London Borough of Hackney, as people are being told that, due to a technical "glitch" with IT systems, it may not be possible to vote.
I reached my polling station in Victoria Park at about 8:30 AM this morning to be told that I wasn't on their list—despite registering over two months ago and calling twice to confirm I was registered when I didn't receive my polling card—and that had to go to the Town Hall and get an elector number in order to vote. When I got there, a queue of red-faced people was already snaking through the foyer and out onto the steps outside, where people smile for their civil ceremony photos. No one seemed to have a clue what was happening—the staff, the security guards calling everyone "boss," or the voters, who were becoming increasingly squashed together. By about 9:30 AM, everyone was shouting. A man with a stubbed-out cigarette hanging from his lips came and sent loads of leaflets flying, muttering something about being "taken advantage of."
Eventually, a young male official appeared with a girl who looked no older than 12 and said, "If your polling station has told you to come here, they're wasting your time. They need to try harder to get through to us," before instructing his "assistant" (the child) to go around and take everyone's names and addresses down on a notepad to list as "clerical errors." He was very patient, but gave no information about how long these errors would take to be remedied—if at all. A young guy who was on his way to a double shift and "already late" asked, "Is there any point me waiting, mate?" The official said, "I'm not going to lie to you, not really."
A Hackney council worker had just told a man that there was no point waiting to see if he could vote in the General Election. "This is unbelievable," I said. "Yeah, it is," he replied.
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The council's response so far hasn't accurately represented the chaos and exasperation I saw this morning. They told the Evening Standard that there was a "brief busy period when the Town Hall first opened this morning, this included some people with general enquiries; those who had incorrectly gone to Town Hall to vote instead of their allocated polling station; those who had come to collect postal votes which have had to have been reissued; and those who use the Town Hall as their fixed address," only, the majority of the rapidly growing crowd when I left at just before 10 AM were there because they'd been turned away from their polling stations, like I was.
The council have also said that voters have been "victims" of the government's new individual voter registration system.
"Due to issues caused by the new Individual Electoral Registration system we did not receive some applications until late into the process, as details were cross checked by the Department for Work and Pensions, via the government's new online registration service," they said.
But if that's the case, why has an Electoral Commission spokeswoman told the Guardian:"We are aware of the issues in Hackney, which we understand at this stage relate to specific problems they have identified with their IT system."
Diane Abbott, the Labour candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington blasted the reports on Twitter, saying, "This is so shocking. They have had five years to prepare for this election," pointing towards disorganization at the Town Hall itself.
I gave my details to the child, but thought I'd chance it and go back to my polling station. A polling station inspector there said she "refused" to let me leave until I could vote, and told others in the queue she'd "not let them be disenfranchised." Eventually, she got through to someone at the Town Hall, who confirmed by registration. I got my ballot paper. Others may not. The inspector told me she was just starting to realize how "widespread" the issue was in Hackney, and was on her way to the Town Hall to see what's going on. She shook her head as I left.
At the time of writing, it seems like Hackney isn't the only borough to have been affected by technical glitches. It's happened in Dorset, too, and Bournemouth council have apologized after 100 people were unable to cast their vote in the local elections because an administrative blunder meant wrong ballot papers were issued. Expats abroad have also complained that their ballot papers arrived too late.
"I understand of course that voting from overseas entails complications. No one can be blamed for the inefficiencies of international post. But an estimated 4.6 million UK citizens live abroad so it is non-trivial for such inefficiencies to essentially disenfranchise so many potential voters," Paul Farrington-Douglas, who is based in the Czech Republic, who initially tried to register in mid-March, but only received his ballot on May 4, told the Guardian in an email. He also said that his relatives in Spain had also been left without a vote.
If Twitter is anything to go by, the problems in Hackney today are far from sorted. The BBC have reported that only 100 people will be "affected," but judging by the scenes I witnessed this morning and continuing reports on social media, it'll be more. Even if were just 100 people, though, and even if Hackney is a safe Labour seat, does it really matter? No one, nowhere, should be disenfranchised on the day of an election because of a computer "glitch", or because of reported weeks of council disorganization. No one who wants to vote should be denied. As Abbott tweeted most recently, "Spent months telling people to vote. Now Hackney Council completely messes things up. Made no contingency for the numbers."
"We're all squashed ants in 'ere," said the shouting woman in Hackney Town Hall. People smirked, but maybe she'll be right. What a fuck up.
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