Polling day chaos in Britain as people lose chance to vote

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

There were chaotic scenes at polling stations across the country Thursday as people waited for hours but were still not in time to cast their ballots before the 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) voting deadline.

Election officials appeared ill-prepared for a large number of people -- early figures pointed to a higher turnout than normal -- and were caught off guard by a surge of voters in the final hours of polling.

Police were called in to control an unruly crowd who missed out on voting at one polling station in Sheffield, northern England, where a group of irate students protested by attempting to stop ballot boxes being taken away.

Would-be voters in London staged a sit-in after they queued up but were too late to cast their ballots, while some polling stations had to close briefly after running out of ballot papers.

"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, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

The Electoral Commission watchdog said it was launching an investigation and pledged to undertake "a thorough review of what has happened in those constituencies where people have been unable to vote."

Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opposition Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg all condemned the polling day chaos.

Cameron said a new government, when it was formed, had to "get to the bottom of what has happened and make sure it never happens again."

BBC TV's election anchorman David Dimbleby said Britain's chaotic polling day would shame nations with less developed democracies.

"This is meant to be a first world country. We are meant to be one of the first democracies who know how to do these things," he told viewers.

"Here we are giving an example which would shame countries that are just starting their democracies."

Early turnout figures, taken after results in 192 of the country's 650 constituencies, showed national turnout at 64.6 percent, up from 61.4 percent in 2005.

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

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

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.

In London, voters in the Hackney district staged a sit-in after they were told they could not vote, while police were called to the Lewisham area where around 300 people were yet to vote before it closed its doors.

In two polling stations in Newcastle, northeast England, voters were rushed inside just before the deadline and the doors were shut to allow them to vote.

© 2010 AFP

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