Banbury Labour chief demands the whole story behind a blunder that saw a Tory announced winner in a 2021 vote that had returned a Labour councillor

Last year's election count at Spiceball Sports Centre where an error happened and a Labour won seat was awarded to the ConservativesLast year's election count at Spiceball Sports Centre where an error happened and a Labour won seat was awarded to the Conservatives
Last year's election count at Spiceball Sports Centre where an error happened and a Labour won seat was awarded to the Conservatives
Banbury's Labour Party chair has demanded that the person responsible for elections explains how Tory and Labour votes got exchanged in a local poll last year.

He also wants reassurances that counting is checked explicitly by more than one person as good practice in future, to prevent repetitions. He says voters of Ruscote are entitled to an apology.

John Christie, chair of the Banbury and Bicester Constituency Labour Party, wrote this week to Cherwell District Council leader Barry Wood demanding that the council provide a public explanation for the reasons behind the blunder.

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The error happened last May in the count to decide the winning candidate for the Ruscote, Banbury division on Oxfordshire County Council.

Cllr Mark Cherry who received the most votes and had his win endorsed by the High CourtCllr Mark Cherry who received the most votes and had his win endorsed by the High Court
Cllr Mark Cherry who received the most votes and had his win endorsed by the High Court

Tory candidate Jayne Strangwood was announced the winner when the previous councillor for the ward, Mark Cherry had received the most votes. The bundles of counted votes had been put into the wrong baskets.

Mr Cherry - the elected councillor - had to take the matter to the High Court as this was the only way to get the error corrected officially.

The error was the responsibility of the returning officer - in this case Yvonne Rees, CEO of Cherwell District Council. Ms Rees has not published her official explanation which was accepted by the High Court.

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Mr Christie said the council should make this public, as the returning officer for South Tyneside had done very quickly in a similar case.

In a letter this week to the council leader, Cllr Barry Wood, he said: "I understand our Labour Councillors have recently asked for reassurance from Cherwell District Council (CDC) that the procedures for the conduct of the electoral count for the CDC elections for May 2022 have been reviewed and revised following the serious mistake made by your Chief Executive and returning officer (RO) Yvonne Rees in the 2021 County Council election.

"The Labour councillors have asked for a public statement of what went wrong and the measures taken to prevent its recurrence.

"I also now understand that you have not given the requested reassurance and have said it is a matter for the county council and the RO. When asked for similar reassurance by Labour councillors, CDC’s Monitoring Officer refused to discuss the matter.

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"As the same flawed procedure was adopted in 2021 for both the district and the county elections, I think that this is a proper matter for CDC to consider.

"I appreciate that the RO is responsible to the courts and not directly to the council but the RO is appointed to the position by the council.

"The Electoral Commission report on the conduct of the 2021 election by the RO stated that the actions taken by the RO did not meet its performance standards."

Mr Christie said he had written to Ms Rees in October, asking her for a public statement to the county council about what went wrong and steps taken to prevent recurrence - and to apologise publicly to the voters of Ruscote.

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"I cited a case in South Tyneside where the RO did just that after a mistake was made. Yvonne Rees refused to do so saying that the matter had been corrected in the High Court and an apology given there. I do not think this is good enough and voters are entitled to a proper explanation of what happened. The only statement that the RO has made locally is that an administrative error had occurred.

"The RO’s witness statement to the court shows that the RO’s procedure for the count was flawed in that it failed to make it explicit that the count should be double checked and signed off by two people rather than one, in order to minimise the risk of human error.

"The witness statement also says that the bundles of votes counted on display for count observers were clearly colour marked and visible. However, I am informed by the Labour Party observers that the bundles were removed from view by count officials before the final tally of bundles was complete. I raised this with the RO pointing out that the count system is dependent on the competency of procedures and actions and not on the accuracy of checks by observers. The RO did not respond to my comments on this part of the count," he said.

"The RO refused my request for a public report to both councils explaining what went wrong.

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"I am now asking you as CDC Leader to ensure that this situation is rectified and a public report made. In particular the report should unequivocally state that the procedure, over which the RO presided and was responsible for, omitted to specify that the relevant document should have been checked and signed by two officers.

"The report should also set out the steps taken to prevent future recurrence. The voters of Ruscote deserve a full explanation of what went wrong from the Returning Officer, instead of a vague assertion of an 'administrative error', which could mean anything and is not really taking responsibility for what happened."

Yvonne Rees, Returning Officer for Cherwell District Council, said: “As Returning Officer I am responsible for the conduct of the forthcoming District Council elections and am satisfied that the arrangements we have in place are appropriate.

“In the Witness Statement that I prepared in respect of the Banbury Ruscote election petition in 2021, I explained that I had discussed with my senior team how we can seek to ensure that our systems are improved for future elections.

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"I also explained that the post-briefing note that is sent to count staff ahead of polling day will include the specific instruction that the result sheet should be completed by the Count Supervisor and checked by the Deputy Count Supervisor, with both individuals being required to sign the sheet to that effect.

"Moreover, I explained that the importance of these steps will be emphasised during the training session that will be given to count staff. I confirm that these improvements are in place for the forthcoming election.”

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