The Frontline of Democracy

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A voting slip on its way into the ballot box - graphic by Community Artist Clelba.

I never sleep well the night before election day. By the time I've assembled the drinks, snacks and meals that will see me through 15 hours, sorted out what I'm going to wear (professional yet approachable, comfortable, and no party political colours), and checked for the last time that I have everything ready to load in the car in the morning, it's gone midnight. And then I'm worried that in five hours' time, I'll somehow sleep through the alarm. So it takes ages to drift off, and then I wake up with a start … hardly worth going back to sleep … although, actually, it is still pitch dark …

Five thirty am. When the children were little, between six and seven in the morning was Too Early, and before six was Still The Middle Of The Night. But on election day, it's time to get up for work. Shower, dress, breakfast, load car. We can't do this the night before because it's a security risk: somebody might steal the ballot papers, or the ballot boxes, or the register of electors. We set off at 6.15 – our polling station is a town one, in the heart of the district.

"We" consists at this stage of myself (presiding officer at Polling Station 2) and van-smeiter (presiding officer at Polling Station 1). There will also be J, presiding officer at Polling Station 3, and a total of five poll clerks – two for me and for van, and one for J, whose electorate is smaller. All three stations are in the same community centre hall, and J was based here last year, so when we arrive he takes charge of setting out the hall in such a way that electors are funnelled towards one of the three polling stations, and can't easily put ballot papers issued at one station into the ballot box belonging to another.

England is divided into polling districts for elections purposes and there are three polling districts covered by our three polling stations. But we do not have one polling district per station. Polling district A has around 4,000 electors and has been split 3:2 between polling station 1 and polling station 2. With the smaller share of polling district A, my polling station has also been given polling district B – about 500 electors. Each polling district is printed on its own register and this means that we have two registers to check through to find each elector who turns up at our station to vote. Polling station 3 has polling district C – about 500 electors.

We separate the three polling stations with lines of chairs (which visiting children throughout the day use to play trains), and set out two tables parallel to each other close to the entrance and pretty well in the way of anybody entering the room. We use the further table to display all the statutory notices that have to be on display (we also have these stuck up by the main entrance to the building). We use the nearer table to display the lists of streets belonging to each polling station. And one of us stands by that table all day, to meet and greet, and direct incoming voters to the correct polling station. Roughly every hour I nip round the polling stations to collect the stats on how many voters each has had so far, so we can calculate a likely turnout rate. It looks good, right from the start of the day, and a steady stream of voters comes through all morning. People also drop by to hand in their postal votes. Lunchtime is quiet, but we have a small surge at school gate time. And then at 6pm, they come in droves. For over an hour it is relentless – we later calculate that 10% of our electorate pass through in that hour. Polling station 2 builds up quite a queue, but when I go over to help I realise that there is nothing that an extra person can actually do to speed things up. So we put up some more polling booths, so at least people don't have to queue to vote once they have queued to obtain their ballot papers, and move the ballot boxes to try to straighten out the flow of people. Moving the ballot boxes also means that (a) voters from polling stations 1 and 3 can't see an alternative box to put their vote in and (b) whoever is on meet and greet can keep an eye on the ballot boxes and check what's going in. Meet and greet is too far away to actually stop anybody from putting a local election ballot paper in the general election box, but if we know one has strayed into the wrong box we can at least alert the count teams.

We had worked out that about 18% of our electorate had already had a postal vote (we have a list of postal voters with each register) so we knew we had enough ballot papers, if everybody entitled to vote turned up to do so. But one of the things that had kept me awake worrying was working out what I would do if we had a queue of people at 9.50pm. Because the rules are very clear: only those with a ballot paper already in their hand can cast a vote after 10pm. Just being inside the polling place isn't enough, and this had been covered in our training. Eventually I had decided that if we looked like being overwhelmed shortly before the close of poll, we could dish out ballot papers to everybody, but would then have to prevent them from putting the ballot papers into the box until we had properly recorded the issue of each ballot paper – which we could do after 10pm. Slightly bending the rules but apparently, in the aftermath of those chaotic scenes elsewhere, this is what the Electoral Commission would have expected me to do, which is quite reassuring.

I assume most Brits reading this will have been to vote on Thursday, but we had a number of first timers on election day, who stood there panic stricken saying 'I've never done this before – what do I do?'. And there are plenty of non-Brits on the site. So, here is how we do it.

Voter enters the room. 'Hello! Which street are you?' says Meet and Greet cheerfully. This is a really stupid question which baffles incoming voters, so it's soon rephrased.

'Hello! Where do you live?'


OK. Question needs to be slightly more precise to elicit a helpful answer then.

'Hello! Which street are we looking for?'

Having found this winning formula, I stuck with it for the whole of the rest of the day, and I'm proud of the fact that when I said it for the thousandth time it was still just as fresh and cheery as when I said it for the first.

Right. Voter enters room and is directed to correct polling station. Voter hands over polling card, or says their name and address (either is just as quick as the other, regardless of what acting returning officers in some parts of the country are now saying). Poll clerk looks up address and name on the register of electors. This involves flicking through several pages of lists, and (in the case of polling station 2), two registers. The poll clerks get the hang of which street is on which list remarkably quickly, but it's still a bit of a faff.

Having found the correct name and address, the poll clerk then says:

'Could you confirm your name and address please?'

Voters don't like this. They point out that they have just handed over a card with this information printed on it. But this card isn't evidence of their identity, whereas (under our electoral law) saying your name and address aloud is.

'What do you do if someone turns up and they're dumb and can't say it?' demanded one truculent elector. My poll clerk (who was doing the job for the first time but is an absolute natural) looked him in the eye and said firmly that we had special procedures in such a case; and then, when he had gone, asked me what they were. In fact, this isn't something we covered in training, but I said we would say 'Can you confirm that you are Mr Peter Smith of 7 Jasper Close?', so that the person could nod to confirm. And later in the day, when this very situation arose, that's what we did.

So, voter states name and address, poll clerk one crosses the voter off on the list, and says the elector number for that voter. Every elector has an elector number – it's on the poll card, it's on the register, and when poll clerk one says it, poll clerk two writes it down on what's called the Corresponding Number List. The CNL is the list of ballot paper numbers and there is a separate list for each set of ballot papers (that is, one for the local election papers and one for the general election papers, so poll clerk two has to write it down twice). Voters worry about this, too, because it means that somebody could find out how they voted, by finding their elector number on the CNL and then finding their ballot paper.

In theory this is true. In practice it would be very difficult, because of how muddled up all the papers get at the count – at least a needle looks different to a piece of hay. And after the count all the ballot papers are sealed up in packets which can only be opened on the order of the High Court. The purpose of the CNL is to show that each ballot paper was correctly issued to an elector on the list entitled to receive it. And that's not every elector. Those who have already been issued with a postal vote can't vote in person at the polling station – unless they have opted for postal voting for local elections but not general elections, in which case the register will be marked to show the poll clerk this, and poll clerk two will issue only a general election ballot paper. European nationals can vote in local and European elections, but not parliamentary ones – again, the register is marked to show this. It is also marked to show members of the House of Lords, and other people with unusual voting entitlements, but we didn't have any of those.

And if an elector has appointed a proxy, once the proxy has cast the elector's vote, the elector can't then claim it later in the day. They have to fight it out somewhere else. Not only is the register marked to show those who have made proxy voting arrangements, but we also have a separate list of proxy voters.

While poll clerk one is establishing the identity of the voter, poll clerk two has been folding the ballot papers. A well-trained poll clerk does not fold a ballot paper exactly in half. If the ballot paper is folded slightly off centre, it is easier to unfold at the count; and of course, the way it is folded before it is given to the voter is usually the way the voter will fold it to put it in the ballot box (although some voters still determinedly fold their paper as small as they possibly can). Poll clerk two then unfolds the ballot papers and hands them to the voter face up, explaining which is for the local election and which for the general election (because in 647 constituencies all the names on both papers will probably be unfamiliar). And poll clerk two also indicates the ballot boxes, ideally saying something like 'And when you're done, each paper goes in its own box there' – but this can be a bit subtle for some electors, who will clamber over chairs to get to the wrong ballot box on the other side of the room, or carefully put both papers in the same box.

Voter then goes into a polling booth, which is handily equipped with a small pencil on a string ('But somebody could rub it out and put something else!' 'NO THEY COULDN'T! You're putting it into a sealed ballot box!'), marks the paper, and posts it into (hopefully) the correct ballot box. Some voters bring small children with them to help with this bit.

We watch hundreds of people do this during the day. We catch the person stuffing her ballot paper into her pocket because she doesn't want to vote for any of them ('Just put the blank ballot paper into the box. You can't take it away in case somebody copies it. Also it will screw up my ballot paper account if there's a paper missing.') We help those with a visual impairment to cast their vote, and keep a record that we have done this. We also have to keep a record (and a declaration) of voters assisted by a 'companion' – although this is tricky and there are times when it would be officious to do so, so often we just keep an eye on things to make sure that the voter is deciding who to vote for, rather than being told who to vote for.

Because there are eight staff altogether, we are able to keep ourselves topped up with cuppas, have brief meal breaks, and visit the toilet. And one of the duties of the presiding officer is to check that agents and candidates outside aren't hassling incoming voters, that the notices are still in position, and that the sign by the road hasn't blown away. So periodically, we do that too, combining it with a quiet smoke.

Our final hour is very quiet. We dismantle the extra polling booths, and at 9.45 we feel brave enough to pack away the lines of chairs, and take down the duplicate notices. The three presiding officers have already completed as much of the paperwork as possible – the rest can only be done after the close of poll. I plug in my radio and just before ten we tune into Radio 4, closing the doors and the ballot boxes once Big Ben has chimed in the hour.

Then it's all a bit frantic. The poll clerks take down all the rest of the notices, and the booths, and the presiding officers get on with the paperwork. The most important document is the ballot paper account. This is basically a sum: number of ballot papers issued, less ballot papers spoilt (it's a slightly more complicated sum than that, because of the way it's set out, but broadly that's what it is). The final total is the total number of ballot papers now in the ballot box, and the first job at the count will be for this total to be verified.

But there are other documents to fill in (usually with a 'nil'), sign off, and seal up, as well. It's 10.30 before we lock up and make our way to the count centre. Each presiding officer has to carry from the car the following (none of which can be left unattended):

  • Two ballot boxes, each with its ballot paper account sealed to the top.
  • Two clear plastic bags containing the paperwork.
  • Two brown paper packets containing the boxes of unused ballot papers.
  • An envelope containing any postal votes handed in at the polling station.
  • An envelope containing the marked register of electors.

There is also a black plastic sack containing all the torn-up poll cards, but luckily it's OK to make a second trip carrying those.

And once we've handed everything over, we can go home.

At the count, the contents of each ballot box are checked separately, firstly to hook out any ballot papers that are the wrong colour and should be in the ballot box's pair, and secondly to verify that the right number of ballot papers are in the box. We thought that a ballot paper from polling station 1 might have gone into a ballot box at polling station 2, but we weren't certain – if we had been, we would have sorted this in the time honoured fashion of directing a voter to the ballot box that was a paper short, and nobody would ever have known because the boxes would have verified to the ballot paper account. Nobody rang me at 3am so I assume the boxes verified.

Once each ballot box has been verified, the contents of all the ballot boxes for a particular area (including the ballot boxes where verified postal votes have been stored) are mixed up before being sorted and counted. Counting assistants usually work in pairs, one sorting and one counting. The votes are counted into batches of 20, which are then stacked in 100s, before being whisked away by count supervisors and stacked in 500s or 1000s. For multi-member wards, counting assistants again work in pairs, one stating how the votes have been cast on the ballot paper, one recording this on a grid, and the votes are then totted up at the bottom of each grid. This gets harder, the more multi-member the ward: it's also the system used for counting parish council votes, where it's possible to have over a dozen seats being contested.

During the count, blank ballot papers are taken out, as are ballot papers which have been defaced. All of these are shown to the candidates. Early on in the count it will be established that 'ticks are OK' (voters are supposed to show their preference with a cross). Sometimes a ballot paper will be marked in another way – for example, by one candidate being underlined. These are shown to the returning officer who may decide that this is a clear indication of preference and allow the vote.

Ideally, the counted votes plus the spoilt and blank papers should equal the total number of papers put in the ballot boxes. Often they don't. If the discrepancy is less than 10 votes, and the result is not in doubt, this won't result in a recount. But if the discrepancy is greater, or the margin between candidates is smaller, then it will. And the more recounts there are, the later it gets, the more tired the counting assistants and supervisors get, and the harder it is to get an accurate count.

Finally, the acting returning officer decides that the count is complete, and shares the result with the candidates and their agents. And then comes the bit you see on TV ...

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