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I've been following a lot over the past several months, how US elections are conducted and the steps that are taken between an election and a new President being sworn in. Particularly, how the states have responsibility to certify, and should a state not certify, the results aren't counted and this could prevent a majority in the Electoral College.

My question today how elections are conducted in the UK, especially the role that the presiding officer has when announcing results. I have checked online and have found some sources regarding their job description in that they manage and ensure polling places are functioning and impartial etc. But do UK election presiding officers have any powers in having a say whether the results are valid or not? Could they refuse to certify a result, as the states can do in the US for example? Or is this office merely a formality and less partisan than across the pond.

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    I think you probably want to ask about the powers of the returning officers. The returning officer is in overall charge of voting in the constituency and counting the votes, and will have several presiding officers (one for each polling station). – richardb Jan 10 at 17:45
  • Both I and JamesK have answered assuming you mean the (acting) Returning Officer. If you did mean to ask at the polling station level you should note that: 1) votes are only counted centrally, having been physically transported to a counting place and 2) UK ballots are numbered, so can be audited back to the poling station and (in principle) the person it was issued to. Those records are on paper, and it would be illegal to try without a court order. – origimbo Jan 10 at 18:04
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The UK electoral commission have produced a series documents describing the roles of the Returning Officer and their role in the vote count and after the declaration. As noted on page 11 of the first linked document, in most circumstances the actual day job is performed by the Acting Returning Officer (who will be a civil servant working on the local authority executive) rather than the Returning Officer themselves, who normally gets the job as a ceremonial duty (in county consituencies it falls to the Sheriff ).

While the Acting Returning Officer has a duty to ensure that the election and subsequent count runs fairly. In this sense, "refusing to certify" an election, would just be admitting one's own incompetence. Having said that, the last word on whether a UK election has proceeded correctly or not comes down to a (possible) Election court, which will sit in the event of a challenge and decide whether to accept the result or order a re-run.

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The Constituency Presiding Officer (aka Returning Officer) has the power to reject any ballot and said rejection may only be challenged by an election petition (a form of judicial process). The legal justification for this lies in Rule 48, Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (link) which reads:

“The decision of the returning officer on any question arising in respect of a ballot paper shall be final, but shall be subject to review on an election petition.”

It is thus conceivable that a Returning Officer has the power to disqualify a ballot paper by rendering a final verdict on the question of whether or not to do so.

The law states that every ballot deemed valid must be counted. Note that the actual count is performed by a counting assistant (who is legally a clerk of the Returning Officer) and overseen by agents of each candidate (who may object to decisions made by the Returning Officer or their clerks). If an objection is not adequately heard, this can be challenged by means of an election petition.

The ascertainment is required to be done by Rule 18 of the schedule and Act mentioned above, which states in pertinent part that:

the result shall be ascertained by counting the votes given to each candidate and the candidate to whom the majority of votes have been given shall be declared to have been elected

(emphasis mine)

The declaration of a winner is also required by Rule 50 of the same schedule and Act mentioned above, which requires the Returning Officer (by using the word “shall”) to “declare to be elected the candidate to whom the majority of votes has been given” and “give public notice of his name and of the total number of votes given for each candidate together with the number of rejected ballot papers under each head shown in the statement of rejected ballot papers”.

Conclusion: The Returning Officer is required to count valid ballots according to law and to ascertain candidates as a result of said count, with there being no discretion in the process, save for the power to render final decisions on questions concerning ballot papers (subject to judicial review).

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Not "power" but "responsibility". It is their job to make sure the count is done correctly. The "power" resides entirely with the voters.

There are a number of differences in the way in which voting takes place in the UK compared to the USA. Voting machines, hanging chads, all of this is not possible. There are no signatures to be checked. Proxy voting is legal. There are no id checks at the polling station (you are asked your address but that is it). There are more polling stations and voting goes on for longer (7am-10pm) which makes queues unusual. Voting is done by placing an X next to the name of the candidate you choose (usually, but there are exceptions) But even in the exceptions the voting is by writing a mark on paper.

The counters may need to decide on spoiled ballots. There is an element of judgement here, and the acting returning officer is usually the one who can make a decision "this one is spoiled, don't count it". But that could be subject to review in the courts, and in Election court in particular. Here they are experts to be consulted, rather than authorities to be obeyed.

The acting returning officer needs to make sure everything is done right. And at the end of the count, they announce the result. They announce the result of the count. They don't have the power to declare a result invalid or valid. Like other public employees, they have a job to do. Does a train driver have the power to choose not to stop at a station? Does a teacher have the power to teach the flat Earth theory? Returning officers are not allowed to let their partisan views affect the count. They are expected to be non-partisan. I can't recall a case in which a defeated candidate complained that the count was partisan.

There is a tradition of non-partisan civil service in the UK. Civil servants are well used to putting their own politics aside and enacting the policies of the elected government.

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  • "There are no signatures to be checked." That's not true for postal votes. However, the signature checking is done before the polls close so that they can be counted with the in person votes. – Joe C Jan 10 at 18:00
  • @JoeC In fact before hand for votes which arrive early. At least one politician has got in serious trouble for indicating postal results. – origimbo Jan 10 at 18:06

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