Northern Ireland: 1,045,537
About 46,000 polling stations across the United Kingdom - often in local schools or community centres - open at 7 am on election day. The presiding officers ask voters for their name and address. The voter’s name is then crossed off a copy of the register in order to ensure that no-one votes more than once - a criminal offence known as personation. A ballot paper is perforated by a punch machine to give it an official mark (a protection against individuals using illegal counterfeits or stolen ballot papers) and then handed to the voter. It lists the names of all the candidates standing in the constituency in alphabetical order, with their party affiliation or other description (the identification of a candidate’s party affiliation has only been allowed since the 1970 general election). The voter takes the ballot paper to a voting booth and marks a cross against the candidate of his or her choice with a pencil. As a result of legislation since 1997, party logos may also be shown on ballot papers and only parties registered with the Electoral Commission may use a registered description of themselves. Anyone else must either describe themselves as “Independent” or leave the box beside their printed name blank. Special arrangements have been allowed for the Speaker of the House who may use the words “Speaker seeking re-election” to describe himself. In addition, each polling station must now be equipped with a special device that creates a ballot paper for use by visually impaired voters.
Polling stations close at 10 pm and the ballot boxes are taken off to the local leisure centre, town hall or similar centre to be counted. The returning officer has a duty to make arrangements for counting “as soon as practicable after the close of poll”. The overwhelming majority choose to count on the night, with only a few waiting until the next morning. Teams of counters - mostly local government staff and specially-recruited ‘experts’ such as bank tellers - then conduct the two stages of any count. Traditionally they first count the votes in each ballot box in order to verify that the number tallies with the record of those issued. Once this process is successfully completed they begin the second stage which is to separate out the votes for each of the candidates and count these into bundles of 50. The whole process is witnessed by the candidates and their representatives. The more experienced of these often watch how the votes divide between the parties in ballot boxes from key wards and compare the result from the same boxes in previous elections so as to gain an early indication of the likely winner of the seat.
Spoilt Ballot papers
At every count there will be ballot papers that are disallowed. Ballot papers can be rejected for the following reasons: absence of the official mark; voting for more than one candidate; writing or marks by which the voter can be identified; a blank paper or one where the voter’s intention is uncertain. The returning officer adjudicates on questionable ballot papers in the presence of the candidates or their agents. His or her decision whether to accept or reject a ballot paper is final (but subject to review in the event of an election petition) and confirmed by writing “rejected” on any ballot paper not to be counted. However, if an objection is raised about a disputed ballot paper by a candidate or agent, the returning officer’s decision still stands but she must write “rejection objected to” on the relevant ballot paper. In the 1997 election, some 93,408 votes were rejected, more than double the number in 1992; and in 2001 the figure was 100,005. This was almost certainly due to the confusion caused by local elections being held on the same day in large parts of England in both 1997 and 2001. The other occasion when local elections coincided with a general election - 1979 - also saw a considerable increase in spoilt ballot papers (to 117,848). In the Winchester constituency in 1997, a dispute over ballot papers spoilt for want of the official mark caused the result to be declared void and a new election called.
When all the votes have been counted and discussed with the party agents, the returning officer is required to declare the result without delay. Returning Officers today would be hard-pressed to match the declaration of result recorded by the late Fred Craig in his ‘British Electoral Facts 1832-1987’:
“There was so much local interest in the result of the Ashton-under-Lyne by-election (29.10.1928) that the Mayor arranged for coloured rockets to be fired from the roof of the Town Hall. The by-election resulted in a Labour victory and yellow rockets (the local Labour colour) were fired which could be seen throughout the town by many people awaiting the result.”
These days things are more mundane. Something of a race to declare the first result has developed between a handful of constituencies. Torbay, Guilford and Reigate have usually been among the first over the last thirty years, although Sunderland South trumped them all in 1992, 1997 and 2001.
If the result is close - or if a candidate falls just below the 5% figure needed to save his or her deposit - a recount can be requested. The decision on whether or not to order a recount rests with the returning officer. If one is ordered it usually involves counting the bundles of votes amassed by each candidate. But often candidates or their agents may request that individual bundles be checked to ensure that votes have not accidentally been allocated to the wrong candidate. In the case of very close results, a complete recount can take place. There is no limit to the number of recounts which can be ordered but if the figures come out the same two or three times in succession, the returning officer will usually decide that requests for further recounts are unreasonable. Between 1945-92, the prize for the closest-ever result was shared by Peterborough which the Conservatives won in 1966 and Carmarthen which Labour won in February 1974 - both with majorities of three votes. In 1997, the Lib Dems won Winchester from the Conservatives by two votes. However, this resulted in a petition and the first demand for a scrutiny of ballot papers since 1922. The petition was successful and a new contest was held on 20 November 1997 at which the Lib Dem candidate was returned with a majority of 21,556 votes. In 2001, Cheadle had the smallest majority – 33 votes – when the Lib Dems took the seat from the Conservatives.
In the unlikely event that recounts fail to separate the candidates and there is a tie, the returning officer is required to settle the issue by lot straight away. He or she can determine the method used but they are advised to ask each candidate to write their name on a blank piece of paper and place it in a receptacle and for the returning officer to pull out one of them. Whoever wins is deemed to have an extra vote (and that vote is added to the official total) and takes the seat.
On May 5th 2005 more than 44 million voters will be entitled to head to one of the 46,000 polling stations throughout the UK to take part in the democratic process.
In the pursuit to uncover what actually happens after the polling stations have closed we contacted a variety of local returning officers to tell us more. However, despite using their fine oratory skills to declare the winner that is as far as they are willing to talk.
The threat of legal action and ultimately having their result declared null and void, meant that they weren't too keen to go on the record with what happens at the count.
However, despite thinking that the counting of votes included weird rituals on a par with free masonry we were better informed after talking to the leader of returning officer for the general election, David Monks.
Mr Monks is the Chief Executive of Huntingdonshire District Council as well as being the spokesperson for returning officers in Britain.
About 90% of returning officers are Chief Executives of local councils, districts and cities but in some authorities it is sometimes the City Solicitor or Borough Secretary.
It is a job that involves far more than just being able to pronounce the names of the candidates correctly and Mr Monks was only too keen to explain how much of the organisation of the election falls to him.
"It all does, it’s a very very big project to run and the only way to do it is to run it as a very strict project with proper time scales, proper resources and very thorough planning indeed."
|Back breaking work.|
"In my area there are 110 polling stations and hundreds of staff, many of whom do not work directly for the council, and they all have to be employed and paid and organised and above all trained, so it is a big logistical task." Mr Monks explained.
But what happens if all goes wrong?
“If you get it wrong you are challenged in the High Court, in what is called an election petition which has happened to me last year."
"Effectively it is a High Court writ and whoever is unhappy with your decision or how you have run the election will challenge you in the court. The court can overturn the result of the election and make you do it all again." Hence the reluctance of local returning officers to speak about their highly trusted position.
“Last year in the European Elections there was a candidate who wasn't happy about the various aspects of the procedure and didn't like the way the Royal Mail were allegedly not delivering his leaflets, he didn't like me very much either."
"So we ended up in the High Court with him challenging me and I'm pleased to say the Court threw his challenge out so I didn't have to re-run the whole European election again."
"But even for a lawyer like me who is experienced in Election matters it was quite a task going thorough the courts."
|"I think there is a case to be made now because of the concerns on postal voting and fraud to have some sort of supervision of voting"|
|David Monks, leader of returning officers.|
Already during this election there have been concerns raised about the use of postal votes and whether the system in place is secure to prevent voting irregularities. With around 6 and half million people voting by post this time the right checks and balances need to be in place.
"Postal voting has been receiving a lot of attention in the media this time round and there is in my view quite a lot of concern arising from the Birmingham case because people are questioning the safety and security of the system."
"I think there is a case to be made now, because of the concerns on postal voting and fraud, to have some sort of supervision of voting."
"I think there is an argument for individual registration rather than household registration in other words getting people to individually register and sign on."
|Postal votes, cause for concern|
"The idea has been mooted of people producing identity to prove who they are before they can vote."
"These are difficult controversial issues and frankly in the day before elections it is not the time to rush into judgment on them, we need to be more reflective about that in the future."
But what is the best way to run a count on election night, very strictly or with an almost party atmosphere?
"People who know me would say it would not be a party atmosphere I'm not such a cheery soul as all that."
"On the other hand I think if you're too rigid and expect people to behave in a somewhat of a militaristic way you are just going to get people upset."
"You've got to accept as a returning officer that people like the press are there to do their job and they are entitled to information."
"The candidates and agents want to see everything is done properly and they are going to scrutinise what you do and it is a very serious job for us and we have got to do the best we can."
The constituency where David is currently the returning officer was once the parliamentary seat of former Prime Minster John Major, which somewhat altered the way in which the count was run.
"We had a lot of interest from the media, the last one I did with him was in 1997 and we had 250 media people there, some came all the way from Japan to watch me count votes, there was an awful lot of interest."
"Of course the other problem is security, people walking round with loaded guns I must say is not something I like to see at a count."
"I don't think it is part of our style of working in our democracy on the other hand you can't afford to take risks on these points today."
With such a serious job and the possibility of court action if anything goes wrong has anything ever happened which was cause for concern?
"I've had things go wrong a few years ago at a local election."
"We just lost some votes, they just weren't there for me to count and people got very upset at that."
"Eventually we found them but people were lets say less than happy with the way things were going."
With more than 44 million people entitled to vote in a General Election and over 46,000 places to actually cast a vote the organisation of an election requires stiff regulation.
"The rules of elections are very technical indeed and it is very easy to transgress them so we must be diligent all the time."
|Not much has changed over the years.|
"The problem is that they date from the 19th century and they don't really suit our lifestyle in the 21st century."
"There is a big case for reform of these rules."
"I think our system at the moment is completely outdated and it really runs from the ballot act of 1871 and that is no way to run our lives in the 21st century."
"There are very high levels of trust in this system, people feel there are very high levels of integrity and it is important that we don't lose that people have got to feel confident in what they are doing."
"But remember the idea of say a 19 year old going down to the draughty church hall at the end of the road, getting a little bit of paper with a stubby pencil, putting a cross on-it the traditional mark of the illiterate it is not exactly part of their lifestyle now."
At the last election more than 25 million votes were cast, and when you consider the possibility for legal challenges against any of the 646 members of Parliament returned it makes you wonder what happens to all the voting slips after they have been counted?
"The general election papers are sent to Clerk of the Crown and Chancery in London and they are stored for a year in case there is any challenge so all the papers and documentation can be produced, the local papers we keep.”
Another question that routinely gets raised by the cynics is whether it is possible to check the ballots to see who voted for whom, especially as all ballot papers have an original identification number printed on them.
“You can only do that with an order from the court and you would need the court to open the packets and check back against numbers."
"It’s not going on surreptitiously and the courts of this country would all ensure it is done properly.”
With all the important aspects of the safety and security of the count dealt with there was only one more question to ask, how do you go about pronouncing difficult names - do you practice?
"I do practice and I talk to their agents about the best way to do it again I'll not give anything away but some of the authorities I've worked at some people have some very complicated names."
"I always try and do the best I can with this and I'm afraid some people just have to be offended, broadly speaking if they have won they don't think you are a bad chap."
"Whatever people think we have some very fine qualities of our constitution and if I can chip in with my two pence worth and help with that I feel proud and humble in my own way."
You can hear full coverage of the General Election results within Beds, Herts and Bucks as they come in using the Listen Live function on the homepage.