Monday, May 09, 2005

Out for the count

My participation as a counting assistant for a Parliamentary Election was to be an interesting experience. It was better than simply being a candidate representative prowling the tables as there was real work to be done. Of course, it could be argued that it was worse than simply being a candidate representative as the work was comparatively tedious.

On arriving in the banqueting hall at Leeds Civic Hall, I joined the Elmet counting throng, probably about 60 counters in all. The hall was roughly divided in two (across the width) by two rows of observer chairs back to back. Each of the two halves had tables arranged in a large U shape, with additional tables within for administrative purposes. I found a seat reasonably near the door towards the end of a U, facing a temporary stage with a Leeds City Council backdrop, presumably for announcing the results. Behind me, an identical arrangement was in place for Pudsey, sans stage. This was a useful place to sit, as I could see the boxes arriving, then later on the candidate boxes being filled and “enjoy” the candidate speeches at the end of the evening.

I was surrounded by “ladies of a certain age” (i.e. anything from 40+ to 60+) who seemed to make up the majority of the counters, although there was certainly a representative cross-section of society present, keen to earn their £40 before tax. We were ticked off an attendance list and then the Senior Counting Assistant introduced himself to us. He was retired and an old hand at elections (he had officiated in a senior capacity in the past). He had a droll sense of humour and kept us amused with stories and anecdotes as the night progressed.

Chatting to my casual colleagues, the lady on my right lived Wetherby way so knew the background to Elmet Ward. She said that despite being a Labour man, their MP was actually rather good in the Constituency and the Conservative Candidate was “a bit of a shit” (her words, not mine). Hmm.

The ladies on my left had participated in a couple of postal vote counts and were actually somewhat cross about it because it seems that a lot of the other participants were effectively getting paid twice for it (by being in local government jobs) and were swinging the lead big-time with excessive toilet, coffee and smoke breaks. Hmm again, with shades of Marge Simpson in the tonal nuances.

It turned out that the first lady on my left had lived in Morley previously, so we passed some of the time comparing notes about how the place used to be and how it was now.

Our first box arrived at round about 10:30pm which was followed by rather a lot of others (someone said there were 57 polling stations in Elmet Ward). The arrival went a bit flat around 11:30 but then a trolley appeared piled high with them around midnight.

Most of the boxes were modern plastic ones the size of the sort of box you do desk moves with in an office. The key differentiator, however, was the lid which was fixed on with plastic tamper-proof seals and with a sealable slot. How tamper-proof the seals actually are is questionable as they basically appear to lock in place and then have to be damaged to pull them out, but someone determined with a duplicate set of seals could commit electoral fraud. It may be that the seals have numbers on them but I didn’t look that closely.

I bought a plastic shell case from an army surplus store recently (for the grand sum of £1) as a “useful box” and that had my idea of a real seal, twisted wire through a locking loop, sealed with a slug of metal (presumably lead) which encased the wires and also had a seal number impressed into the surface to identify the sealer.

The first stage procedure was as follows:

The SCA would take the associated paperwork from the Presiding officer and check that it matched the box number and three digit code marked on the side of the box. He would then break the seal, remove the lid, tip the ballot papers onto the tables and ask us to count them into bundles of fifty. We were expected to place them all face up and it also helped if we placed them all the same way (although we weren’t actually asked to do that at the time). Once counted, we put an elastic band round them, added a pink slip (pre-printed with “50 ballots”) and placed then towards the far edge of the table. We would swap papers for people who were a few short of fifty, count & note the balance, then the SCA would check the total to see if it reconciled with the Presiding officer count. If it didn’t the bundles were handed out again for rechecking. If a consistent miscount was obtained, then this became the actual figure and this was noted accordingly. All counted votes were then placed in empty boxes on the central table for later stages. The reason for the discrepancy is generally down to someone not actually placing their vote in the ballot box, whilst the polling officers are supposed to keep an eye on this in practice it is never entirely policed. (Indeed, at my own polling station, the ballot box was between the officer tables and the polling booths but a queue would obscure the box from the not-particularly-watchful eyes anyway).

Behind us, the people with vested interests circled. It had struck me earlier on that it would have been a lot easier if we had actually faced out rather than faced in, as we wouldn’t have had people looking over our shoulders & breathing down our necks. However, on reflection, it was a lot easier for the SCA to distribute the ballot papers from inside the U. I have seen counts done both ways and they each have their merits and pitfalls. It was interesting hearing the odd snippets of conversation that drifted in and out of our ears from the people behind, a lot of it informed, some of it clueless. During the first stage, it is a chance for the party people to take an educated guess at the likely outcome. They generally know the areas that the boxes come from and have an idea what to expect when they look at the distribution of the X marks.

We did hear that Sunderland South had declared, but otherwise heard very little about how the Election was going elsewhere.

Stage one was the one that took the longest time, as we had to dispose of that large heap of boxes before we could move onto stage two. Meanwhile, the man in the middle was keeping note of the figures and all of the other associated paperwork was being checked out (postal votes handed in at the polling station, spoilt or misprinted papers not actually put in the box etc.)

Stage two commenced after all of the ballot boxes have been emptied (at about 12:50pm and the opportunity to have a comfort break after more than three hours at the table). The bundles of fifty were now passed back to the counting assistants for sorting into votes for candidates. Meanwhile, empty boxes were grouped on the floor in readiness for putting sorted (but uncounted) ballot papers into by the SCAs.

Sorting the papers is cathartic but does require concentration. Look at the ballot paper; check it is legitimate then put it in the right heap. For a paper to be legitimate, it has to have the election mark on it (the pattern of holes punched by the polling clerk using a stapler-like device), bear one cross mark only on it clearly identifiable to be a vote for one particular candidate and not be identifiable to the voter (e.g. by them having written their name on it or something similar).

As the votes got sorted, the SCA would wander along reducing the heaps by collecting for a particular candidate. At this stage, the Surnames started to be used (Andrews, Burgon, Kirk, Millard), as they are the most prominent bit on the Ballot. For my sorting, the Burgon heap tended to be the largest (Labour), with a fair number of Millard (Conservative), rather less Kirk (Lib Dem) and hardly any Andrews (BNP). Of course, it was hard to tell from the heaps on the desk, but the slowly filling boxes on the floor painted the picture of the slowly accumulating sorted ballots.

A spoilt ballot paper would occasionally enliven the relative dullness. Some were fairly uninspiring; they would have no crosses on at all, or a cross next to more than one candidate (generally all four). One was simply crossed out all over; another advised us that the candidates were all murderers as they supported abortion. My favourite had “none of the candidates below” written in at the top (as there wasn’t room to write “none of the above” at the bottom!).

There were also papers that were not spoilt but not quite right. Sometimes the candidate was ticked, or there was a squiggle next to the name. One had two votes with one of them scribbled out. My favourite had a small cross next to a candidate (Lib Dem in that instance), then a big smiley face filling the rest of the X box. The view of the staff was generally pragmatic; if it was obvious who the vote was for it was accepted regardless of following the rules to the letter. If there was any uncertainty, it was added to a heap on the centre table that would be discussed with the candidates if necessary.

Eventually, we moved on to stage three. This was where all of the votes had been sorted and it was time to count them. We were given heaps of votes and asked to check as we counted that they were all for the same candidate. After grouping them into fifties, we were supposed to initial them, then they would be cross-checked by someone else and the SCA would collect up bundles of double-initialled packs, group them into packs of ten, label them as 500s and put them back into the candidate boxes.

In practice, this double initial regime didn’t happen as intended, as some people were not actually initialling the pink slips & the SCAs weren’t looking for them as they collected the bundles.

At about 2pm, there was activity near the stage and TV cameras were switched on. The Pudsey result was declared, a Labour Hold. There were a few brief speeches and then half of the hall drifted off. Meanwhile, we cracked on with the count. Eventually, the tables were clear of ballots and the officers compared notes. The chief counter showed a piece of paper to the Labour & Conservative candidate to presumably see if they were happy with the result, or if not happy, that a recount or check of dodgy ballot papers would be unlikely to swing it. Shortly afterwards, the result was passed on to the acting returning officer who announced the results, Labour Hold, with the figures sounding fairly similar to the ones I found on the BBC Election website (the 2001 figures, not the “test” 2005 ones I saw on Wednesday!) A look at the BBC analysis shows a slight swing to Labour, although it isn’t as clear-cut as that as there was an increased turnout and both Lib Dem and BNP polled more than Lib Dem and UKIP did last time.

Most of the counting assistants had gone before the last candidate spoke and I was out of the door pretty soon after that. Slightly ahead of me was a group of BNP supporters (I mentally used the collective noun a “bigot” of BNP supporters) in moderate sprits and as we wandered back through the corridors of power, one of them pointed into a committee room where staff were bagging up votes for secure storage and quipped “that’s where the BNP votes went”. In your dreams, matey, your supporters didn’t vote for you in significant numbers.

And, alas, the same was true of Mr. Robert Finnigan. After I had signed in for Elmet, I received a voice mail on my mobile. It was from Robert’s agent; she had received another couple of passes in the post to get into the Morley Count and I would be welcome if I wanted to attend. I rang her back and arranged that in the unlikely event of Elmet declaring first, I’d pop down to the Town hall to see the announcement, but it would be improper of me to leave now.

Between the first and second stages of the count, I had a quick look at a TV in the lobby to see how the election was going and also rang down to the Town Hall for an update on Morley. There, the prognosis was not good & the Independents were actually concerned that they might lose their deposit. When I got home, a look on ‘tinternet confirmed how badly they had done, with less than 11% of the vote, 6.4% of the voting strength. At 5% qualification, they would get their deposit back to fight another day but it was still a disappointment that when it came to the crunch, his supporters locally still felt the need to follow their party instincts for parliament.

So, what did the results mean? Well, the overall turnout had gone up, from 53.5% to 58.82%. 4053 more people voted for candidates this time (& there appear to be nearly 400 more voters on the register.)

Looking at Labour, Colin Challen’s vote fell, from 21,919 to 20,570, 1349 votes less and only 48.4% of the vote this time compared to 57% last time (an 8.6% decrease). This means that more people voted for others than Labour, indeed the three other candidates polled 21,925 between them, 1,355 more votes than Labour and 6 votes more than he got last time. Still a safe seat, but no longer a majority of voters and slightly less than 28.5% of the electorate (compared to 30.5% of the electorate in 2001).

For the Conservatives, Nick Vineall got 8,227 votes, 19.4% of the vote and 11.4% of the voting strength. This was 1,602 votes less than David Schofield polled in 2001 which was slightly over a quarter of the vote (25.6%) and was a decrease of 6.2%.

For the Liberal Democrats, Stewart Golton increased his vote from 5,446 (14.2%) to 6,819 (16%), 9.4% of the electorate. Whilst this was an increase, it was only a 1.8% swing.

Robert Finnigan the Independent gained 4,608 votes, a 10.8% increase on last time according to the BBC (as he previously polled no votes at all. Unlike the legendary Kevin Philips-Bong of the Slightly Silly Party, however, he hadn’t stood last time).

Chris Beverley got 2,271 votes, 5.3 percent of the vote and just over 3.1% of the voting strength. I don’t know if deposits are based on potential or actual voting share but imagine it is the latter and Chris got his £500 back. There wasn’t a BNP Candidate in 2001, however there was a UKIP candidate who polled 1,248 votes.

Looking on the Website, it announced that Colin Challen had retained his seat with a slightly increased majority which was accurate enough semantically (he did get 253 more votes), but is basically spin. Based on first past the post, he had 12,343 more votes than his nearest rival (Nick Vineall) compared to 12,090 votes more than David Schofield in 2001.

It also reported a 1.2% swing from Labour to Conservative but that is based on the BBC swingometer that can only really cope with picking two of the big three parties. However, he and Nick Vineall had both lost nearly three thousand votes between them to the three other candidates and with more than 4,000 votes because of the higher turnout and 1,250 votes the UKIP polled last time, the majority went to Robert Finnigan.

The election result was pretty much as I expected, Labour retain control but with a much reduced majority. There is another good article on Samizdata here by David Carr that I thought summed up the situation much more eloquently than I could.

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