Let’s count on the morning after to avoid an electoral hangover

The leader in this week’s Scotland on Sunday is spot on.   The proposal to place the vote count for the Holyrood election behind the verification process of ballots for the AV referendum is “an affront to democracy, and an affront to Scotland.” 

But the burd disagrees with the assertion that the count must begin after the polls have closed.  The count should begin on the morning of Friday 6 May with the AV referendum verification taking place afterwards.

Some years ago, I attended a conference attended by everyone who was anyone to do with election planning.  A panel session was held in the afternoon with a Scottish Minister which discussed the idea of beginning the count the morning after polling day.  A show of hands was sought, and every single hand in the room went up in support of starting the morning after.  The Minister was taken aback.  And after he acknowledged the strength of feeling, he went on to explain why it would be ignored and why the count would in fact go ahead immediately after polls had closed.  

The assembled experts were nonplussed as you can imagine.  The cogent arguments made in favour of locking ballot boxes up and starting afresh in the morning still hold true now;  if anything they have become more persuasive.

Even those active in politics have little understanding of the herculean effort that goes into organising polling day in Scotland.  Few realise that democracy in this country is run on a shoestring, in terms of money spent and human resources provided.

There are probably only a handful of full time election planning staff in local authorities in Scotland.  Most – including deputy Returning Officers who tend to lead on everything bar making the actual announcement – have day jobs that they do the rest of the year.  Every council is different:  some put in place a small planning team full time from about six months out, others run it to the wire with people moving full time on to their election duties only in the last few weeks.  Whichever method is deployed, by this stage in the calendar, there will still only be very small teams in local authorities making the necessary preparations for the election on 5 May.  

By the last fortnight, the full team complement will be in place and folk will be working ridiculous hours to ensure that the plans come to fruition.  Election candidates and their activists are not the only ones surviving on snatched sleep and adrenaline by the time polling day comes.

Many of those who count votes will have worked at least some of the day before heading off to do a nightshift to assist our democratic process.  Expecting them to work through the night and into early morning increases the risk of error and jeopardising the accuracy of the result.  Indeed, that is what nearly happened in 2007.   Thanks – in large part but not solely – to the electronic counting fiasco in 2007 we only got the final election tally at teatime on the Friday.  And the result was nearly wrong:  Highland election officials were so exhausted that they initially miscalculated the allocation of the final list seat on the regional ballot.

We only need a delay on the AV referendum verification, a recount on a constituency vote (or several in the same hall) and we are back in the territory of daylight declarations and potentially botched outcomes.

Far better to allow everyone to go home once the boxes have been delivered and secured and start, relatively fresh, at 8am on Friday.  Most results would be available by mid afternoon.  Just as in 2007, we would know who had “won” Scotland’s election by teatime, only this time without the chaos.

It may be traditional for Scotland and the UK to conduct marathons through the night to declare elections but that doesn’t make it right.  Other countries manage their democracy just the same by separating out the polling and counting processes.  Indeed, they invariably manage to avoid the kind of dramas that have come to bedevil our electoral affairs.  

Our memories would seem to be short: never again was the clarion call after the 2007 fiasco.  Yet, the experts who organise and run our elections have warned – again – that factoring exhaustion into the equation in 2011 risks a repeat performance.  It’s time we heeded their concerns and moved the count to the morning after to avoid yet another electoral hangover.


10 thoughts on “Let’s count on the morning after to avoid an electoral hangover

  1. I can see both sides of this argument. I work for a local authority, and many of my colelagues have worked on polling day and at counts, and I could easily volunteer to do so – but wont because the money offered is actually too little – and thats why the council struggles to get the staff needed.

    This year I am closely involved in the campaign, and obviously will be desperate to be part of the drama of election night, but every member of our campaign team, from teh candidate down heaved a sigh of relief when this story was announced. A count for the Holyrood election the following day suits us just fine.

    So where is the pressure coming from for an over night count? I don’t know. I’m more disappointed at the use of manual counting, as the ballot box by ballot box breakdown wont be available!

    • Hi John, thanks for your comment and I’m glad to see sanity prevailing in some quarters at least. The pressure comes from some sections of the media… and at the top of the parties, your own included!

  2. I don’t really disagree with you here but would miss the excitement (and exhaustion) of staying awake for the result. It wasn’t that long ago we assigned 1 person to certain polling stations to follow the boxes from polling station to the count. Remembering tales of vans carrying the boxes being delayed for unexplained periods.

    • Yes I think some of these tales still abound. Securing the ballot boxes just requires scrutiny and someone there in the morning to see the door unlocked… And yes I would miss the excitement too! But it’s unnecessary these days I think. And would be better all round.

  3. I suppose you’re right, even though election night is fun for some of us.

    It seems strange to me that we don’t have a fully electronic system. If we could just turn up and press a few buttons, we could have the full result by half ten.

    • Absolutely. But the parties are dead against modernising voting techniques. They just don’t like change and everyone else involved with the process is frustrated by that. There is increasingly a case for removing politicians’ role from determining electoral arrangements altogether. There is a huge conflict of interest at the heart of them being the final arbiters of all law and arrangements for elections.

  4. That’s pretty much what I said too – great minds and all that. I’d just add that it usually takes a minimum of 10 days to finalise the Government anyway – even when the SNP decided to form a minority Govt, so it’s not going to cause us any great problems. Ministers stay in post and things carry on as usual until the new government is ready to take office.

    I’m all in favour of everybody getting the chance to get some rest.


  5. The politicians and media probably like it because it appeals to their self-importance and satisfies their impatience.

    An actual election count should also come before a “how are we going to do the next election?” count.

    As for Scotland on Sunday it “affronts democracy” most weeks by treating its’ readers as if we are incapable of discerning fact from opinion.

    • Willie, you are spot on. Whenever modernising the voting system is mentioned, the politicians rail against it. And I seem to recall media vacuum being mentioned by the Minister as one of his arguments against. Like they are the most important part of our democracy! Sad state of affairs, to go with all the other sad state of affairs in our society.

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