What to expect at the count (AH AH AH AH AH!)

What should you expect to see at the count on Thursday night if you’re turning up as a party worker, a journalist, an election observer or a member of the public lucky enough to find a count centre allowing you in? What follows is my understanding of what will happen. (EONI’s Guide for Candidates is a good source of information.)

The first ballot boxes will arrive at the count centres from nearby polling stations shortly after ten o’clock. As soon as a box arrives and gets logged, it’ll be emptied out onto an empty table to be verified. Count staff will sit and count the number of ballot papers in the box and verify that they match the number the polling station said that they issued.

In parallel, counting agents from political parties (and even candidates themselves) will perch on the other side of barriers trying to sample the votes on around 100 ballots per box. This is known as tallying. It gives them a statistical sample of support for the different parties in a small geographic region. As well as giving an indication of the overall election result, it tells them whether their doorstep intentions were accurate (if they bothered to collect any) and helps them plan their March 2011 canvassing.

Ian Paisley Junior and others hunkered down on the ground tallying votes being validated face down at the 2009 European Election

Tallying is not legally recognised. It’s a game that the parties play, but the count staff don’t have to facilitate. During the European election last June, ballot papers were validated upside down (part of the EU regulations) which made it a lot harder for the parties. Ian Paisley Junior resorted to unusual poses to sneak a peek at the first preferences.

On Thursday night, ballot papers will be processed face up. So don’t expect to hear party counting agents complaining that “it used not to be done this way” this time.

In other elections, the verification may have been completed for all ballot boxes before the actual votes were counted. This time, in an efficiency drive, as soon as two ballot boxes have been verified, some ballots can be swapped between boxes (you can’t count ballots that all come from a single box) and the same people who were verifying the ballots can start sorting them into votes for the different parties. At this stage tallying becomes less fruitful – as it’ll predict the result, but is no longer tied to one geographic region. Votes for a candidate are bundled into groups of 100 and checked. If necessary, they will be further bundled into groups of 1000.

At some point in the evening, the candidates or their agent will be called in behind the barriers to look at doubtful ballot papers. These will include deliberately spoilt votes (green pen and the frequent misspelling of “gravy”!), people who use 1 instead of X etc. A decision is made on each ballot paper, and rejected ones will be stamped. The others will be added back into the count.

Before the official announcement, the candidates or their agents are again called together and the totals are revealed. This is the point where they would have the opportunity to request a recount, though the deputy returning officer can refuse their request if it is “unreasonable”.

The official declaration will be made, after which the winning candidate will get to make a short speech, followed by the other candidates. The Electoral Office advice to candidates explains:

Please remember that by this stage everyone is likely to be very tired and anxious to get home as soon as possible. You may think it inappropriate to test their patience by making a lengthy or politically motivated speech.

Count centres are each verifying and counting the votes from two or three constituencies. Some centres will count in parallel, others will complete one before the other. I understand that Belfast West and Belfast South will be counted in parallel in the Kings Hall. Lagan Valley will be counted before South Down (it’ll take longer – though not that long – for the South Down ballots to arrive) in Lisburn’s Leisure Centre. North Down and Belfast East will be counted in parallel before Strangford in Newtownards.

Word has it that Belfast West may be one of the first declarations in NI. Could be done and dusted by midnight if there are no holdups.

Rumours that Gerry Adams’ West Belfast vote will simply be weighed rather than counted are untrue! (Though it would be an interesting experiment to verify just how accurate weighing would be.)

However, remember that the temporary count staff are likely to be paid by the hour, and it isn’t always in their interest to get the process completed too quickly. Corrected – it’s fixed fee up until half one.