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.

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  • andnowwhat

    Does anyone know what the mathmatical formula use on polling night is that means not coming first is a victory?

    I’d love to know. I think the TUV will be using it a lot

  • In a lot of constituencies, I suspect there is a bigger race to come second than come first. Sitting MPs are trying to minimise the drop in their majority. The other parties are seeking to maximise the number of quotas they can expect at the Assembly elections in March.

  • Neil McNickle

    I think a lot of these races are a lot more open than anyone really knows. The absence of any proper polling (Thats including the rather dubious BT poll which was far to small to be accurite) means no one really knows exactly what to expect.
    The real X factor is how many DUP voters will defect to the TUV and how many DUP voters will just stay at home. Both are very likely given the lies and Sleeze that have become the DUPs trade mark.
    UU&C will comfortably take S.Antrim & Strangford, and have very good chances in Upper Bann, East Londonderry and Lagan Valley.

  • Re-engaged


    Are you part of the attempt to get Eammon Mallie to broadcast this rubbish, S Antrim may be correct – in 3 previous entries this is what I have stated) however the you realy are barking mad on the rest – especially given the one everyone else including myself thinks is a 3 horse race – E Belfast you do not even mention.

    Really before you try and spin something on behalf of a party ensure there is some sense of reality to it – it makes it easier for people to believe.

    I am however guessing that the light shining from Dave’s nether regions has made some UC’s get sun stroke!

  • Justin Moran

    Can someone explain to me why they only tally a hundred votes from each box? In Southern elections every vote in a box is tallied so you get as accurate a breakdown of the vote as possible. One year we used the Northern method of sampling only a hundred votes and the figures were inaccurate and much weaker.

    It’s first past the post with a handful of candidates. A PR-STV election can have over a dozen candidates with a mark in every box but tallymen still do the whole thing.

  • Neil – You’re smoking something quite powerful! I’ll eat my (paper) hat if UCUNF get within spitting distance of the DUP in Lagan Valley. UCUNF will gain, and DUP will lose votes, but it would be a massive upset for Donaldson not to be returned. And no candidate is predicting that.

  • YelloSmurf

    Tallying the European election wasn’t that difficult as the paper was very thin. The major difficulty (in my opinion) was the speed.

    On a related note Alan, you say that count staff do not have to assist the Tallymen, but they do have to lay the papers out face up. It is, this time around, an offence to show the back of the paper to an observer because the number on the back could be used to identify the voter. So, while they don’t have to help, any attempt by count staff to stop the tallymen seeing the front of the papers is, strictly speaking, illegal.

  • YelloSmurf

    That post is quite badly punctuated. I’m very sorry.

  • Time and resource. There are only so many party count agents in each centre. They don’t have enough people for one per table. From what I saw at the Euro count, they do a sample and then move on to the next box/table.

  • Delta Omega


    The Chief Electoral Officer stated on the radio a few mornings ago that the staff were paid for the job – not hourly – therefore there was no advantage to doing the process slowly. It is probably more advantageous to doing it quickly so that they can go home.

  • Granni Trixie

    It always surprises me the way some people seem to have a blind faith in the accuracy of Tallying.

    Though I do it myself I see it only as a rough,very rough guide informing future use of resources – a sense of where to maximise suppoort, canvassing etc.
    You certainly can have a sense of how your (and other) candidates are doing by the visuals – as pile upon pile grows or diminishes your hopes.

    The social world of the Count is also worth noting….rubbing shoulders with journos and other politicans and their staff you only know at a distance. Some allies,some strong opponents with whom you may pass a few words as you munch on you (pretty awful) beefburger. However unusual politeness prevails I find. So,there is chat, jokes, food and in some cases tears. All in all a good party for the anoraks.

  • Fixed – thanks.

  • Mark McGregor

    Justin, the limits on numbers allowed into the tally and the fact parties here won’t share data make a fully tally impossible.

  • the blow – in

    Counts are a great day out for the political junkie but best enjoyed when you can disappear off to a local hostelry to watch the TV coverage from around the country once your own tally is over.

    In reality a tally is only useful when combined with a well marked register and given that fewer and fewer people are actively involved in canvassing these days, you’d wonder how much use they are at all. Also there is the growing tendancy for the electorate to tell canvassers what they want to hear just to get them off the doorsteps –

    Still, for people like me the count coverage is great theatre, just think how much better it will be if the Lib Dems get their way and the first past the post system is replaced!

    Oh, the joys of tranferred surpluses, eliminations, and of course recounts on the 23rd count, once the returning officers staff have had their tea! (i’ll get me coat..)

  • lover not a fighter

    I am concerned that dissident Republicans may try cause disruption at the counts.

    I assume the relevant authorities are going to be vigilant.