Counting the votes
How this in done in United Kingdom General Elections
The political process in the United Kingdom is steeped in tradition, and no part of it is more traditional than the actual process of counting the votes and declaring the result. During a General Election this will happen across the country on election night, with the media anxious to catch each constituency’s declaration and calculate the “swings” that can be used to predict the overall result.
Getting the results early is clearly in everyone’s interest, and it is remarkable how quickly this can sometimes be done. Some constituencies actively seek to race to be the first to declare a result, and the record is currently held by Sunderland South, which, on the 5th of May 2005, was able to announce its next MP only 43 minutes after the polls had closed, beating its previous record by two seconds.
So how is the count organised?
This is normally done in a large hall at a central point in a constituency. Quite often this is a sports hall, but it can be a room in a civic centre, a large church hall, or any other space that is big enough for the job. Quite often, neighbouring constituencies share the same hall for their count, either counting in parallel or delaying one of the counts until the previous one has finished.
Under current electoral law, the polling stations close at 10.00pm, at which time the ballot boxes are sealed and then taken to wherever the count is to be held. This is normally done in vans belonging to the local authority, with a council official on hand to certify that all the boxes originally delivered to the polling stations are returned to the count. Police officers often accompany the boxes on this journey, especially if there are concerns about security in a particular area.
In most constituencies, the count starts during the night of the same day that the poll took place, but this is not always possible. For example, some Scottish constituencies include many remote villages and offshore islands, from which the ballot boxes have to be transported by boat or plane. The count in these places is usually delayed until the day (sometimes two days) after polling day.
At the count, rows of tables await the boxes. Each table usually represents a council ward within the constituency, and the boxes delivered to that table will be from all the polling stations within the ward. This makes it possible for election results to be monitored for trends within different parts of a constituency – such as between urban and rural wards, for example.
Sitting at the tables are the counting staff, who are often recruited for the night from local banks, as they are used to counting large numbers of pieces of paper.
Overseeing them are council officials, and at the head of the operation is the “Returning Officer” who is responsible for declaring the result and delivering, or “returning”, the announcement to Parliament.
The title of Returning Officer is traditionally an honorary one that belongs to a mayor or a “high sheriff”, and the task is usually performed by somebody a little lower down the pecking order in the local hierarchy, who takes the title of “Acting Returning Officer” on the night. Even if they have political views of their own, these must be set to one side when people are carrying out their electoral duties.
Counting the votes
The election candidates are allowed to view the count at close quarters, by walking around the room and looking out for any obvious mistakes, such as a paper being assigned to the wrong pile. If they think they see something untoward they can draw this to the attention of a supervisor but must not interfere with the counting staffs or touch any of the papers. The candidates are also allowed to nominate a small number of assistants who can patrol the count. Apart from these people, everyone else in the room must stay well away from the tables.
The ballot papers are actually counted twice. When a box is first emptied on to a table, each paper must be unfolded and then counted to ensure that the number in the box matches the number of counterfoils that the polling station officer has stamped. This process is known as verification. If there is a discrepancy there could be a problem of votes having gone astray, or even of “ballot box stuffing” with illegal votes.
Once the papers have been verified, they can be divided between the different candidates’ names according to where the crosses have been placed. The counters will also be on the lookout for “spoilt papers” where either a voter has deliberately or accidentally marked the paper wrongly, or not at all, or there is a technical discrepancy such as an official mark not being present on the paper. There may be papers on which the voter’s intention is not immediately clear, and these are consigned to a “bad or doubtful” tray so that a senior official can make a decision on each one later on.
Once sorted, the piles, one for each candidate, are counted. The usual procedure is for the teller to count 20 papers at a time and clip them together. Two counters sitting together can double-check each others’ clips of 20. The papers are then placed on a central table, in their clips, where, as the count progresses, it can be seen which candidate is ahead as the overlapping clips spread down the length of the table.
The candidates will have a fairly good idea of which parts of the constituency are more likely to show a preference to them. They will therefore be aware that, as boxes will arrive from the more outlying areas later than will those closer to the count, the pattern of voting may change. An early lead can often be reversed.
One unknown factor is the box containing the postal votes that have been received prior to election day. In some constituencies, postal votes can represent a considerable portion of the votes, such as where there is a large military base and most of the servicemen are overseas at the time but eligible to vote by post. The box (or boxes) containing the postal votes is often the first to be counted, as the counterfoils can be matched with the votes received in advance, and the box is already at the count when the polls close.
The total number of votes for each candidate is ascertained by adding up the number of clips of 20 and then adding the “odd” votes numbering less than 20. Normally, the Returning Officer will tell the candidates what the result is before announcing it in public. This gives a candidate an opportunity to ask for a recount if the vote looks to be close.
If a recount is called, the whole process must start again, or at least some of it must. Mistakes are possible at almost any stage, in that papers could have been mis-assigned to the wrong pile, a 20 might not have been a 20, or the number of clips has been added up wrongly. When the vote is very tight, the number of papers in the “last clip” is likely to be vital. It is very rare for a recounted vote to be exactly the same as the original count.
It should also be noted that a recount may not have been called for the purpose of deciding the winner. A candidate must achieve 5% of the vote in order to reclaim the £500 deposit that was paid when he or she submitted their nomination. If they are just short of that number they may ask for their own papers to be recounted, which clearly will not take as long.
At the end of the count, the Returning Officer will mount a stage or dais and invite the candidates to array themselves behind him. He/she will then announce: “I, (name), being the Acting Returning Officer for the (name) constituency, hereby declare that the votes cast in the election for each candidate were as follows”. He/she then reads out the names in alphabetical order and their number of votes. In past times, the political affiliations of candidates were not given on ballot papers or announced by Returning Officers. However, this is no longer the case and the names are now given together with their political allegiances.
The final line of the Returning Officer’s speech is: “And I hereby declare that the said (name) is elected to serve as Member of Parliament for this constituency”. He/she then concedes the microphone to the winning candidate who makes a short speech that firstly thanks the Returning Officer and his/her team for the count, then the officials and Police who oversaw the election, and his/her supporters for the campaign. It is usual for politics to enter proceedings at this stage, with the new MP declaring that this result shows how the British people have given a fresh mandate to … and so on!
The losing candidates can then make speeches of their own, thanking the same groups of people as the winner and stating that they will be back and will win next time!
The speeches have most interest when the winners and losers are prominent in the political scene. In the British system, the Prime Minister and most of his team must also be Members of Parliament and thus also attend their count when they are elected. At this point, even the highest politicians in the land are no more than candidates who are seeking a seat, and are subject to exactly the same procedures as the humblest would-be backbencher.
Election counts are all part of the rich tapestry of the British political scene. They can often be highly dramatic, as when a whole string of recounts takes place, or a cabinet minister loses their seat. They are always highly charged pieces of political theatre that the United Kingdom will long treasure.