It’s 3.20am London time, and nothing so far has really upset the picture formed from the last week’s worth of opinion polls.

The Conservatives have obtained a substantial swing and will clearly be the largest party in the new House of Commons. They may or may not have a majority — from the figures at the moment it seems probably not — but they will be close enough to it that it will be very difficult for their opponents to form a successful coalition.

The Liberal Democrats have fallen away from their high of a fortnight ago, but their fundamental problem is still the electoral system, rather than a lack of votes. There have been some gains by the far-right parties, but nothing spectacular; the regional parties are mostly holding their ground and the big surprise has been the defeat of Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson by the Alliance (an affiliate of the Lib-Dems) in his seat of Belfast East.

An anti-Conservative coalition is still a slight possibility, but it’s much more likely David Cameron will be prime minister. How secure he will be in that position will depend on this afternoon’s counting, with possible recounts and challenges to come. It is, of course, a feature rather than a defect of the system that no party wins a majority when votes are this even, but the Tories perhaps should not be blamed for not seeing it that way.

What has been most troubling the British commentators, however, is the logistical problems of the election, which apparently saw significant numbers of people unable to vote.

As the BBC’s Nick Robinson put it: “What a tragedy that, after a campaign which engaged and energised many who were previously cynical about politics, tonight’s story may be being overshadowed by the extraordinary revelation that Britain cannot competently run the most basic part of the democratic process.”

Australians are spoiled in this regard; we have been world leaders in electoral administration for a long time. The pre-printed secret ballot is still in other countries often called the “Australian ballot”, and it’s no coincidence that we are (as far as anyone knows) the only country to have an electorate named after an election official — William Boothby, who was the first Commonwealth returning officer.

To be sure, some variations in how elections are run are just cultural differences — different countries do things differently and have different expectations, but each finds its own way satisfactory. But unless you’re a mad relativist, there is also such a thing as better and worse ways of running them. (Disclosure: I’m a partner in a small firm that does this for a living, so I know something of what I’m talking about.)

No-one, even the British, thinks standing for ages in a queue and then being turned away without being able to vote is a good thing. The increased turnout was widely anticipated, and it should have been provided for.

Polling stations should have been adequately staffed to keep queues moving steadily, and a few minutes before closing anyone still in the queue should have been herded inside (this was apparently done in some places, but not universally — polling is run by local authorities, so practice varies). Provision of absentee voting would help, or at least letting people vote somewhere other than their local booth.

I don’t want to give the impression that running elections is easy — it’s not. But it’s also not uncommon; there’s plenty of experience worldwide to draw on. These things really should have been sorted out before now.

Mind you, a system where a party can win a large majority with 35% of the vote, as Labour did last time, has bigger problems than just long queues.

Peter Fray

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