Saturday, 19 September 2009

Spoilt Ballots? The Friday Count Debate

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.


MrJones said...

Bush. Hanging chads.

Any doubt over the honesty of an election pumps poison into the system. It doesn't matter if it's true or not - doubt creates the poison. Any change that could add more doubt should be avoided.

It's the postal voting needs to be scrapped not the election night count.

Richard Nabavi said...

Thanks Bunnco - very informative.

Edinburgh said...

I am glad to see someone has presented the facts of the case fully and clearly!

The best solution to this "postal vote problem" would be to move the deadline for receipt of postal votes to 5.00 pm two days before polling day. That would leave the day before polling day for all the checks to be carried out on the last received batch of postal votes. The present arrangement, especially with the essential new validation requirement, is just ridiculous.

Even with that change, there really is no need to count through the night. It is a silly obsession. In Northern Ireland election counts start at 9.00 am on the day after polling and that is accepted.

ChristinaD said...

Bunnco, thanks for that very informative article.

Pensfold said...

At the recent Sparkbrook by-election for a Birmingham City Council seat 400 out of 1800 postal votes were said to have been rejected because of the signature beimng suspect.

Birmingham is where there has been a concentration of election fraud but will all the rejects have been fraud or will some be people who have not signed thew same way?

Anonymous said...

(AnneJGP ...)

Bunnco, very interesting.

I'd support an earlier deadline for receiving postal votes. Or a rule that postal votes have to arrive at the single given address by (say) 5pm on Polling Day.

Anyone who takes *their own* postal vote to the Polling Station doesn't need one.

What about overnight security though?

It seems very odd that in an age when we reckon that microwaving a meal takes "forever", we're planning to introduce a 12-hour wait!

But I love the overnight drama!

Plato said...

Excellent stuff Bunnco - many thanks for the comprehensive assessment and info.

Richard Gadsden said...

I see another alternative as being the American solution - count everything else while you're doing the signature checks and if the majority is greater than the number of outstanding postal ballots, then declare a victor and go home. If the election is close enough to count the on-the-day postals, then you can count them once the signature checks are complete. With only a few hundred to count, even if it took until 6am to finish the signature checks, you'd still get the declaration before 7 (unless there's a recount, of couse)

Edinburgh said...

Richard, your first suggestion is a very sound statistical approach, but I cannot see it being accepted for UK public elections.

There are practical problems about setting up an elector ID system at the counting centre, as it will usually be based on the council's central computer system. I know fast remote linking should be available, but you have to remember that there are already concerns about the use of "black box" technology in vote counting centres. Anything with remote links is sure to fall under suspicion.

And all of this just to massage the egos of some overblown politicians. In no other walk of life would an "applicant" for a post be able to demand instantly to know whether s/he had been successful the moment the "interviewing" process ended.

And of course, if we used a sensible voting system, like STV-PR, and manual counting was demanded (as the anti-black box campaigners would insist), it would make no sense at all to count through the night. In Northern Ireland the STV counts are all manual and all start at 9 am on the day after polling day. Some candidates soon know they have been elected or defeated, but others have to wait until the second day of counting to learn their fate. It's been like that since STV-PR was re-introduced in 1973, but the sky has not fallen in.