Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Equality of the Count

The Count for the local elections this year was the second one I've been to, and it's been a really odd experience both times. It's often the only time you meet and talk to your political opponents (apart from hustings), and you're all in the same boat - you just have to stand there and watch all the votes being processed. There's nothing you can do to change the result, you just need to stand there next to an opposition member and watch.

If you stand or are heavily involved in an election, the relationship with your political opponents is a strange one, and it's taken me a while to get used to it. Often the only communication you have is through leaflets and twitter, and it's really easy to think of them as 'the other' whom you have to beat - it's a trap I've fallen into several times before. This is exacerbated if there's attacks on you or your party in the opposition literature, or if there's members of the opposition team who, because you're with a certain party, attack you simply for getting in their way.

However, the truth is that most of the people working in the opposition party are doing it for exactly the same reason as you - because they want to make their area and city better, they want to help people. Sure, they may disagree with you about what that means or what the priorities are, and may make some decisions that you think are bad, but their intentions are (generally) good.

But it's difficult when there's attacks in the literature and online. The campaign in Romsey was quite positive on all sides (and my thanks to Noel for that), but there have been some shocking attacks and leaflets elsewhere in the city. Local politics in Cambridge has a tendency to be rather adversarial, and there are many people - some from historical experience - who interpret all opposition work as bad or wrong, just because it's the opposition. And that results in a negative atmosphere all round, to the detriment of all.

But they're the opposition, and democracy forces us to compete. I want to make a difference to my local community, I want to help make people's lives better. But, often, the only people who actually have the power to fix things and to set overall priority are the councillors. Of course, I email the council, or the officers. Maybe a junction needs to be redesigned, or some trees need pruning or moving. Often there's no reply from the council, or there's no money, or it's not a priority. After all, I'm just a local busybody sticking his nose in.

So to really make a difference, to improve people's day-to-day lives, I need to be elected, because councillors have that power. Unfortunately, there are other people who want it as well, and there's only one seat in the council chamber.

So you campaign - putting out your different opinions about what should happen, what needs to change, what you have done and what you will do, so the electorate can choose. There may be policies or decisions taken by the opposition that you feel are wrong or detrimental to the area, or there may be an issue they've ignored - and so that's one of your campaign points. But sometimes those campaigns can degenerate from positive campaigns about you and what you've managed to get fixed, and turn into negative attacks on the opposition, or even personal attacks on the candidate directly, and local democracy quickly turns poisonous.

It's a really tricky balance, and it's so easy to turn negative. But, ultimately, you all want the same thing, and you'll all end up at the count, watching those ballot papers move across the table, just waiting for the result.

Monday, 1 May 2017

What happens on Polling Day?

With less than a week to go to the local elections, the local parties are gearing up for their polling day operations. Not many people outside party activists are generally aware of the work that goes into polling day and the count itself, and it's an important part of how our local democracy works.

Polling Day

On polling day, each of the political parties in the area run a well-honed polling day operation to encourage people to go to their polling station to vote, and to vote for them. There are several different roles - tellers, doorknockers, and people helping with data entry.

Firstly, the doorknockers. Each party has got a team of people going round the area and knocking on people's doors encouraging them to go and vote. There's also normally a series of leaflets put through doors reminding people to go and vote. This is especially important for local elections, as the turnout is generally quite low.

Next, the tellers. These are the people sitting at the polling station, noting down who has gone to the polling station, usually by noting down the number on each poll card. This data is then passed onto the doorknockers, to remove that house from their list of doors to knock on.

The tellers aren't an official part of proceedings, and they can't go inside the polling station itself - you're not obliged to give them any information about who you are. However, letting them know you've voted will mean you don't get people knocking or leaflets through the door later in the day. All the registered political parties get the official record of who has voted afterwards, so it's information that the parties will get anyway.

Then there's all the people handling the large amount of data coming in - each party has several committee rooms set up across the city, normally at a friendly activist's house. This is where all the data is handled, lists of houses are generated, and a regular supply of tea, coffee, and various sugary snacks are kept for the doorknockers to replenish themselves.

This operation carries on all throughout the day - people get ticked off, and the remaining houses get further and further apart. Then, when the polls close at 10pm, we're off to the count.

The Count

This where all the hard work by canidates and activists over the last few months is decided. In Cambridge, the counting happens in the Guildhall, in the main hall. The number of people allowed at the count is quite strict - the candidates and a +1, the election agents, all the Council employees running the election, and the counters themselves - volunteers from across the city. A certain number of impartial observers are allowed as well. Press are normally cordoned off from the counting hall (in Cambridge, the Press are only allowed in the gallery).

The counters are all sat by long tables, and split into wards. Over the next hour or so after polls close, the ballot boxes arrive from across the city, are unsealed, and the contents are dumped on the tables in front of the counters for sorting. The only people who can touch the ballot papers are the counters themselves, the observers can't handle anything, or even touch the tables.

The count itself is split into two sections:

1. Verification
The first stage - the ballot papers are simply counted. If there's multiple elections in the same box, the papers are separated out, but there's no attempt to split by vote. This step is simply to verify that the number of ballot papers present at the Guildhall match the number of papers given out at each polling station, and check that none have gone missing. The ballot papers are then bundled into sets of 25 for the next stage.

2. Counting
Once all the papers are verified, and any missing ballots accounted for, then the actual counting can begin. The papers are then sorted by vote, and counted up. This stage normally begins around 2am in the morning. Any disputed or unclear ballots are set aside for determination by the counting officials. All the votes are then bundled into sets of 25 for final tallying for the result. If it's a multi-stage count, for example the PCC or mayoral votes, there may be multiple counting stages.

If something doesn't add up at some point, there'll be a recount of that ballot box or division, and if the overall result is close, a full recount may be called to confirm the result.

The observers are there to check that everything is done correctly, and to watch for any errors that are inadvertently made - everyone's really tired by this point, and it's easy to mis-count or skip papers. But the party observers also make notes of the proportions of votes for each candidate during the verification step, as the observers can see what's on each paper. This means the parties present at the vote normally have a pretty good idea of the result by the verification stage, if the vote isn't too close.

For the local elections, only the verification is done overnight - the actual count itself will happen on Friday morning, followed by the count for the mayoral election. But for general elections, the counting happens overnight. It's normally completed at around 5am, if there weren't too many recounts, and the winner is officially announced. Then everyone - counters included - head home for some well-earned sleep.