Sunday, 17 May 2015

Election Night

Yes, I know the general election was over a week ago and everyone in the UK is all electioned out but I'm going to talk about it anyway! Not about the politics but about the mechanics of polling. This year for the first time I worked on the poll count for the northern half of the county, for which the local authority which employs me was responsible, and I thought it might be interesting to report back on the experience. 

The count began when the polling stations closed at 10pm. Although it obviously took time for the ballot boxes to be delivered to the sports centre where the count took place - particularly those from the more distant villages - we were able to start on boxes of postal votes which had already been received. This year there was a complication in that there was an unusual number of simultaneous polls. In addition to the general parliamentary election, we also had to deal with ballot papers for mayoral, borough council, and town or parish council elections, and a local referendum. The slips for all four of these additional polls were placed in the same ballot box so there was a lot of sorting to be done. The first job was to sort and then to count the actual papers and verify that the numbers tallied with the numbers recorded on the box by the polling clerks. The parliamentary constituency I was counting for usually declares its result between 3 and 4am; this year it took until 5am for all the various ballot papers to be verified before we could even start to count them. Most of the parliamentary election votes were counted by 7am, but a bag of 5,000 or so had got mixed up with the local election papers and had to be located and counted after the rest were finished. In the end the result was finally declared at 9.20am and we were allowed to leave after an shift lasting over 11 hours and right through the night. 

Quite a number of us had also signed up to count the mayoral and borough election votes the following day. As this count required us to be back by 12.30pm we had only a three hour break - not time for any real sleep. I simply decided an hour or so of sleep would be worse than nothing and went to work for the morning. Fuelled by a cooked breakfast from the canteen and a brief doze at my desk I actually managed to get a small amount of work done before heading back for round two of the count. This second session finished at 6pm and I was finally able to go home. Fortunately I can cope with one bad (or in this case completely sleepless) night, so long as I get a good night's sleep to catch up. After twelve hours of sleep I was pretty much back to normal the following day. 

After the experience of taking part in a count I was hugely impressed at just how transparent the whole process is. The candidates and their agents were able to walk round the room watching the vote counters at all times. They could query anything at any time and could see the votes on the papers clearly. The sealed ballot boxes were all opened in full view of both the counters and of any of the political folks who wanted to watch. The verification of ballot paper numbers with the number supposed to be in a box - again in full public view - would make it next to impossible to hide or "lose" any papers. Where there was any question as to whether a ballot had been spoiled or any possible doubt over which candidate a voter had picked the agents of all the candidates were given the opportunity to challenge the ballot supervisor's decision. Any figures which did not tally were recounted as many times as necessary to get numbers which balanced, and were then double checked again. It was a time consuming process, but an extremely fair one. Very tiring, but an interesting night's work!


  1. I worked as a Polling Clerk at a couple of general elections when I worked for the Local Authority many moons ago. I was absolutely gobsmacked and a bit horrified, to be honest, when I realised that it is not a secret ballot, as the clerks have to write the each voter's individual number from named lists of all eligible voters onto the back of the ballot papers. I always assumed prior to that, that voting was anonymous in this country, but apparently not.

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  3. That's interesting. I didn't notice any handwritten numbers on ballot papers. I can only think it is intended to prevent fraud and would only ever be used to investigate a complaint of fraud. I wonder if there are ever any circumstances in which the voter lists and the counted ballot papers are accessible to the same person without a court order? The ballot papers from different boxes are mixed before counting so it would be virtually impossible to find an individual person's ballot paper, though I suppose it would be technically possible to find out who had cast a particular vote.

  4. Gosh, that's all so interesting. We went to a concert at our local arts centre on the evening after the election which was where our count was being held. We wondered why it was still a hive of activity, now we know!