Monks: We must modernise voting system

IN A 38-year career, returning officer David Monks has granted votes to homeless tramps, seen fights in polling stations and drawn lots to settle dead-heat ballots.

THE referendum on the Alternative Vote offered a neat bookend to the career of David Monks, the UK’s longest-serving chief executive and returning officer.

In the early days of his career in 1975, Mr Monks was involved in the vote on the UK’s role in the Common Market, and last Thursday (May 5), his electoral career drew to a close with only the country’s second national referendum.

The Huntingdonshire District Council chief executive, 59, who is due to retire from his post in August, said the two national polls offered his career “symmetry”, but that little had changed in the electoral process in his 38-year career.

“There have been few substantial changes: we still use mediaeval statutes. But we will have to change – what we have is not suitable for lifestyles of the 21st century,” he told The Hunts Post.

“More than half, sometimes two-thirds of people are not voting. We have a problem.

“There are other ways than going to a draughty church hall and marking an X in a box with a stubby pencil – which of course was traditionally the sign of the illiterate. Why not try text or online voting?

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“Clearly there are strong security issues, but we need to consider these things seriously, we need to look at them.”

Mr Monks said his aim had always been to be as inclusive as possible – a principle proven while working in Warwickshire by his granting of a vote to a homeless man who lived under a tree.

“We put him on the register because that was where he lived. Just because someone is homeless and sleeps under the stars does not mean they should not be part of the democratic process.

“I gave a vote to the tramp who lived under the tree, and I’ve given votes to people whose address was the doorway of Boots the Chemist.”

In his time at HDC, Mr Monks oversaw counts in the later years of Sir John Major tenure as MP (and Prime Minister) – characterised by 200-strong press packs, sniffer dogs checking ballot boxes and counts that reached long into the night.

He said: “Elections bring out the best and the worst in people. We have a cordial relationship with agents and candidates in Huntingdonshire, but in other places I have seen fights in polling stations.”

Mr Monks has also decided more than one election by the sudden-death drawing of a single vote – his chosen method of resolving a dead heat.

“The returning officer has the discretion to decide the ballot by whichever method he wishes – some choose to cut cards, others carry poker dice in their pockets.”

But the pressure of election day is not solely on candidates. Mr Monks and his team put in months of rehearsals for Friday’s AV count, where he acted as the regional returning officer overseeing 4.3million voters at 47 centres from the north Norfolk coast to the M25.

His team of 12 spent most of Friday in a private room deep in the St Ivo Leisure Centre, ready to double-check and query every figure.

Having come through that final test, Mr Monks and his wife Carole have set their sights on northern Italy, where they plan to move after retirement.