by Gary J
Fri May 4th, 2007 at 12:26:19 PM EST
Rather overshadowed by the Scottish and Welsh results, a lot of English local government elections took place on 3rd May 2007.
I took part in the election in the Borough of Slough (west of Heathrow Airport for those not familiar with the geography). Slough elects a third of its 41 councillors for four year terms, in three of a four year cycle (the other year is for county council elections, but Slough is a unitary authority so we do not have that type of election).
One seat in each of the 14 wards was up for election this year, using first past the post voting (the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that is a minority of all the votes cast).
I was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Central ward, which is a Labour/Conservative marginal to the north and east of the town centre. I was what we call a paper candidate (ie I was just a name on the ballot paper). I was actively working in the campaign for another ward where we retained the seat.
Below the fold I will explain what happened at the count, so those who are unfamiliar with such displays of British style democracy can look upon our works and despair.
The count began at 10:00 am on the day after the election. This was an innovation as traditionally the count takes place over night. However new checks required on postal ballots made it simpler just to start when the counters had enjoyed the luxury of a few hours sleep. It is the thin end of the wedge I tell you - soon we will be having fair elections and that will be the end of civilisation as we know it.
The counting room is laid out with the officials and counters in the middle of a large hall, with tables blocking off most of the room from the predatory hordes of politicians awaiting the results. These come in several grades - the agent who is supposed to speak for his party when dealing with the returning officer and his deputies, the candidates who await their fate, partners of candidates who may or may not understand what is going on and the counting agents who are supposed to keep an eye on what the official counters do and draw their attention to errors (unless those errors help the counting agents party).
A lesser breed of political guests and the press are kept in a small room adjacent to the main hall.
The general public are, of course, completely excluded by teams of security guards and the police. Attendance at the count is strictly limited.
The ballot box from each polling station in the ward is solemnly produced, its seal broken and the ballot papers are poured on the table in front of the counters. Then begins the first stage of the count known as verification.
The ballot papers are first unfolded and then sorted into piles of twenty, to check if we have the same number of ballot papers as the polling station issued. An experienced watcher can do sample counts and get an idea of the balance of opinion in a polling district (valuable to politicians as the votes from all the polling stations in the ward are mixed together before the count of candidates vote totals begins and no official records are kept of the result in individual polling districts).
Hopefully the total of votes found is correct. It is not unusual to have one or two go astray so nobody normally worries if after a couple of attempts there is still a minor discrepancy in the figures.
When verification is complete the verified ballot papers are put back in a box and the whole thing is repeated until all the ballot papers in the ward are verified to the returning officer's satisfaction.
The ballot papers are then mixed up and the count proper begins. The counters divide the ballots into piles by the candidate voted for. Doubtful or disputed ballots are put to one side to be reviewed later in the count.
Bundles of twenty votes for a candidate are compiled and are clipped together. They are then removed from the counters table to another tanble behind them. More senior counters add up the number of bundles and produce a vote total. The disputed ballots are looked at by candidates and agents. Unless the totals are very close it is usually simple to agree which ballots are acceptable and which are spoilt.
A provisional result is produced and the agent can then ask for a re-count if the result is close enough in the opinion of the reeturning officer.
In my count the first provisional result was Conservative 1,437; Labour 1,321; Liberal Democrat 187; Independent 51, The Slough Party 33 (with 15 spoilt papers and one ballot having gone missing during the count). The Labour Party requesterd a re-count. The Labour agent also warned the returning officer that they were contemplating legal action because they allegedly had evidence of electoral fraud (an empty house with 11 postal voters registered there). However as the returning officer said, he had to declare some result.
The recount produced only one change. Two Conservative votes had been wrongly included in a Labour bundle. The result was then finalised amongst derisory Tory cries of "we want another recount, we are enjoying it too much to stop".
So democracy prevailed for another year.