Norwich North broke the mould in being the first English parliamentary election for some time to count the ballots on the following day. Why was this and is it a good idea? Bunnco – your Norwich North Man-On-The-Spot asks around in Norfolk.
One of the long term legacies of Norwich North is likely to be an end to general election counts on-the-night. Back in July the Chloe Smith result wasn’t announced until 1pm on the Friday after 4 hours of frenetic counting activity in a wedding marquee on the Norfolk Showground.
The decision to count on the Friday was initially characterised as something strange – something ‘Normal for Norfolk’ – but since seems to have gained some traction with Returning Officers elsewhere announcing they’ll be counting on the following day too.
There’s been a predictable outrage from Politicos across the spectrum about the prospect of a Friday morning count and last weekend, on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour, some Blair-Babe was arguing that ‘of course’ we should count overnight. So what’s caused this problem? The simple answer, of course, is that it’s her Government’s new rules. But why?
For an answer you need to ask Colin Bland, the returning officer at Broadland Council who oversaw the Norwich North count. So I have!
“It’s not just a case of 'let's have the count start at 10pm' as we have been able to do before,” he tells me. Two things have happened which change the game.
1 New rules on the verification of postal votes to reduce fraud have been introduced this year
2 There’s been an increase in the number of people opting for absent ballots and crucially with more handing them in on the day.
In the past, attending the opening of the postals in the days before polling day has enabled party-workers to gain valuable voting intelligence. The officials never actually showed the front of ballot papers as they were removed from the envelopes but you could normally see the vote cast showing-through the underside of the folded ballot paper as it was put in the box. This way you could get a rough-and-ready idea of the party proportions and target effort in the marginal wards accordingly.
But new rules introduced this year to prevent fraud mean it's different.
Every ballot paper is now included in a second envelope. The second envelope contains a signed voter declaration. That declaration is fed into a scanning machine where the signature is compared with the one provided on the original voter registration form. The machine is pretty good provided there's a close match with the signature and the date of birth. And because you now never actually see that ballot in the first envelope, there's no decent intelligence for party workers to be gained any more, which is a shame for the campaigners.
The machine scan checks for 25 points of correspondence between the signature on the postal vote application [as held in the computer memory] and the signature on the postal vote declaration which accompanies the return postal ballot paper envelope. If there are 18 or more correspondences, the vote is allowed automatically; if not, there will be a manual check between the original postal vote application with that on the declaration. This is the sort of process that takes time if it is to be carried out accurately.
In most cases, all this validation can all be done ahead of time as the postals dribble-in during the days preceding polling day but in the Euro elections in neighbouring South Norfolk last June, 600 postal ballots were handed in on the day at the polling station. We know that in The General there'll be more postals, more will be handed in on the day and the turnout will be higher. So returning officers are now estimating that 10% of the total number of postals will be handed in at the polling station.
And they all need to be signature-processed before ballot verification can be completed and the count proper started. And that’s the problem because it can take hours to validate them. Returning to South Norfolk’s June Euro poll, with 600 votes to process on a 35% turnout, election officials worked through the night until 3am to validate the postals in readiness for the Friday count. So validation for the General could take much longer… perhaps until 6am. And it’s just not on to have everybody hanging about on double-time until the early hours before you can even start to verify and then count.
Norwich North’s, Colin Bland told me. “If we didn’t allow people to hand postals in on-the-day, we wouldn’t have a problem and we could count overnight. But we do, so we can’t.”
Moving further afield, we know from Mike Smithson that there are about 50,000 postals in Newcastle so assuming that as many as 5,000 are handed-in on-the-day, let’s think how Election Officials might somehow short-cut the process to enable the count to start in the small hours?
Firstly, there’s no reason why returning officers can’t tour the constituency on polling day to collect the postals handed-in at the polling station which are placed in special sealed boxes and then bring them to the Count and then start validation straight away as if they had been delivered by the postman. In Norwich North, Bland did just that, getting a head-start collecting about 300 postals by lunchtime. But hundreds more were handed-in after that and right up to the point at which the polls closed. So it’s only a partial solution.
As one national Party Agent confirms, Bland was doing it correctly: “Some councils check postal votes handed in on the day in the early evening to reduce the pressure earlier. Such checking can be carried out while the rest of the count continues, it does not have to be consecutive as long as there is one other box of ballot papers to mix them with when they have been checked, the verification can carry on. ”
But this is fraught with logistical difficulty in large rural constituencies like South Norfolk or neighbouring Breckland, each with 119 parishes, some with more than one polling station. And this is why half the constituencies in rural Norfolk have already declared a Friday morning count.
I wonder whether we might see a dividing line at The General with compact urban constituencies [more likely to vote Labour] going overnight on the basis they can have multiple collections of postals during polling day with the sparse rural ones [Tory-leaning?] opting for the Friday. Might this distort the betting between the close of poll at 10pm and the final declarations?
Of course, the verification could be speeded-up by buying more machines to scan and verify postal votes. But each costs in excess of £20,000 and needs a specially trained operator. In times of financial restraint, is it worth investing those sort of sums to double a capacity used only every other year? It’s difficult to justify in the present climate.
Counting the following day does also provided a cost saving – about £1,000-£1500 was saved on overtime in Norwich North, which could amount to £1m nationally, although this can be partly offset by removing civil servants from the day-job the following day.
Make no mistake. I would really like to have the vote on the night. Getting rid of Gordon Brown 6 hours earlier than otherwise might be the case seems like a good idea to me. And as a person used to attending the count as a counting agent, I love the nocturnal excitement. But we have to safeguard the whole process against fraud... which is why it’s important to check the absents so carefully… and that inevitably takes time. We can’t have it both ways.
But can it be done on-the-night? An increasing number of Electoral Officials don't think so. And they're the ones who run the election. In a touchingly old-fashioned sort of way, I'm not sure it’s proper for Politicians to direct an overnight count. This is one area above all others where Politicos must let the officials get on with it. There really shouldn't be Political Interference in the running of elections.
But, as one venerable former headmaster told me the other day, back in the 1950’s the General Election count was something done on the Friday and that the whole school got involved with it. If we’re trying to engage a whole new generation in an understanding of politics might a Friday count demonstrate to the pupils that polling day isn’t just a day’s holiday whilst the school hall is used for voting, but actually part of a more valuable democratic process?
On balance I’m persuaded that we should leave it until the Friday so we can all share the excitement after a good night’s sleep. Perhaps Colin Bland was more of a trail blazer than a bogeyman after all.