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Counting on drama

Brian Taylor | 14:03 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cast an eye over the Electoral Commission website.

You will find there that "undecided" is polling strongly.

For what? For the UK General Election.

Not between parties - but between counting on polling day or counting a day later.

We all love the overnight drama, don't we? The ballot boxes arrive in the town hall or school gym, their contents tumbling onto trestle tables.

Will there be a challenge? Will there be a recount? Will this ever end?

But, for the coming General Election, a number of returning officers, particularly in England, are concluding that they could do without the dawn declaration.

They will count on Day Two, the Friday after polling.

That means, of course, that the eager hopefuls in those constituencies have to wait.

If enough areas follow that path, then, conceivably, the UK might also have to wait to find out who is going to be Prime Minister.

In Scotland, the pressure is somewhat less.

Unlike in England, there are no council elections on 6 May, the likely Westminster polling day. No double election, in short.

Still, Labour has felt sufficiently moved to issue a statement arguing strongly that the counts in Scotland should take place overnight.

That is also very much the position of the SNP, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Given such unanimity, why does the issue arise? Firstly, because of memories of the Holyrood elections in 2007 when - for quite distinct reasons at the time - the count was less than universally successful.

Returning officers do not relish anything that might land them with comparable embarrassment.

So some of them are wondering whether it might be better to start afresh on Day Two - rather than counting through the night.

Secondly, the issue of postal votes. New rules mean these now have to be tightly scrutinised and validated, with signatures checked.

In most cases, this can be done in advance of polling day.

However, it is open to voters to lodge an envelope with their ballot paper inside at polling stations right up to the close of poll.

In other words, they can apply for a postal vote, complete it - then choose to lodge it personally, perhaps because they have forgotten.

These late postal votes then have to be fully scrutinised in a separate process.

Returning officers in Scotland vary in their view - but some say that could add one or two hours or even more to the counting time.

Day Two counting has always been the pattern in limited rural parts of Scotland.

The additional constraints might mean that one or two more consider the option.

My guess, though, is that the vast majority of councils in Scotland will go for the traditional overnight count.


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