Anger as people denied their vote in British poll

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Britain's electoral commission launched an investigation Friday after queues of angry would-be voters were blocked from casting their ballots before polling closed in cliffhanger elections.

There were scenes of chaos at polling stations across the country Thursday as angry people were left outside without having cast their ballots after the voting deadline passed at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT).

A last-minute surge of people wanting to vote caught election officials off guard -- one station had to shut briefly when it ran out of voting slips, while students denied their vote tried to stop the ballot boxes leaving at another.

"Around about 9:20 pm, 9:30 pm, that was my last try," said Lucinda Cox, after she failed to cast her vote in Birmingham, central England.

"There were massive queues of people leaving the polling station and they said they had been queuing for over an hour and so it was unlikely we would get the chance to vote."

There were reports of people being unable to vote in London, and the cities of Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Election chiefs promised to investigate why people could not cast their votes.

"The Electoral Commission will be undertaking a thorough review of what has happened in those constituencies where people have been unable to vote," it said.

Lawmakers expressed shock at the turn of events, and Justice Secretary Jack Straw suggested there could be legal challenges to close results in some areas where people were denied their chance to vote.

"For sure you could anticipate if there were significant numbers of people who were turned away and the result was very narrow... I'm sure they could seek legal advice," Straw told Sky News television.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson branded the chaos a "tragedy" that threatened to cast a shadow over an otherwise engaging political story.

"Tonight's story may be being overshadowed by the extraordinary revelation that Britain cannot competently run the most basic part of the democratic process," he said.

In London, police said they were called to a polling station in the Lewisham district where around 300 people were yet to vote before it closed its doors.

In the northern city of Sheffield, police were called out to control an angry crowd of some 100 people -- mainly students -- who were turned away after the deadline.

The irate students attempted to stop the ballot boxes from being taken away for votes to be counted, officials said, but they were eventually sent off.

"We got this wrong and I would like to apologise," said John Mothersole, the official in Sheffield who oversees the voting.

In Liverpool, northwest England, some polling stations ran out of ballot papers because of an unexpectedly high turnout, according to local authorities.

At least one polling station was shut for an hour and some voters did not return to vote after being turned away, said local lawmakers.

© 2010 AFP

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