Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday 1 May 2008

X marks the spot

I've done it. I've been to do my democratic duty - and, as I always do, on my way to work (which is usually not busy, so I was in and out in five minutes).

From an outsider's point of view, it's been a rather quiet election. They usually are these days, as parties have fewer and fewer active members doing it the old-fashioned way (leafletting and canvassing door to door). Where I live, the old-fashioned way is close to impossible, since we're all behind gates or entryphones (and in my block somebody made off with the facing plates for our entryphone system a few weeks ago, since when nobody knows which wires go where, and any visitors have to telephone in advance to be let in - very handy).

We're used to one free delivery by the Post Office of a leaflet for each candidate (but they have to arrange for them to be individually addressed); but for an operation as huge as the city-wide election of the Mayor and Assembly, they now have a single booklet, with a statement from each mayoral candidate and a list of Assembly candidates. And that's pretty well all I've seen: apart from one leaflet for the Tories, who I suppose have a member living in my block. I never even knew about this comprehensive site until it was all over!

Voting itself is still a rather nineteenth-century operation: temporary plywood booths in the local school and tied-down pencils. I like it that way: it's straightforward and easy to understand not only what to do but also what happens afterwards.

Once upon a time, I was an active party member and saw quite a bit of the "afterwards", as an observer at several election counts.

First, all the ballot papers are tipped out of each box, unfolded, put the same way up and totalled to make sure there are no more papers in the box than were recorded as issued. This is the easiest bit for the tellers (who are usually bank staff since they're good at sorting and counting bits of paper quickly), but the most complicated for the observers. The individual ballot box represents the smallest geographical collection of voters, so the parties want to get any impressions they can of how their candidate's doing at this level. The observers are expected to count (silently) how many out of as many groups of ten ballot papers as they can count are going their way, and for as many as possible to do so for as many boxes as possible to get a good average.

Once the total is verified for a box, the ballot papers are all collected up and passed to another group of tellers to start sorting them into piles for each candidate. This is the serious stuff: the observers hover over the tellers alert for every mistake (every mistake against their candidate, that is - you'd be surprised how often new observers have to be told to keep quiet about possible mistakes in their favour). If I were trying to concentrate, as a teller, I'd hate having someone leaning over and pointing (no talking to the tellers, by the way, it all has to be done by pointing). Any disputed papers (from people who sign the paper - yes, some nitwits do, or people whose mark is all over the place or otherwise unclear) are put on one side to be dealt with specially by the senior returning officer.

Then the piles for each candidate are collected up and passed to a third group of tellers to start counting. This is the crucial bit for them, but the observers can (and do) relax, for they're in no position to second-guess the counting. They know by now roughly what proportion of the vote to expect. This is the time for them to banter with the opposition. In the 1997 general election landslide, I had my pocket TV with me, and I had the great privilege of telling my (loathed) MP that his counterpart in the next constituency had just lost his (even larger) majority.

Eventually, it's time, somewhere after midnight, for the announcement and speeches.

It's all bit different for this election, not least because one of our Borough councillors has resigned as well. So we had white, pink, yellow and peach ballot papers for each of the different categories: and where the white (Borough council) paper had to be folded (the usual way), the others for the London-wide elections were not to be folded.

And a little administrative detail like that tells me (I should have been a spy) that those ballot papers are going into a machine reader of some sort. And this is how it all works. But this is one area where I prefer to have humans, who can be checked by other humans.

No comments:

Post a Comment