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.

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