Thursday, January 21, 2010

The election count - get it right not get it first

I have just seen Iain Dale's Diary: Election Night Bill Needed in which he's now calling for legislation to have all the counts done immediately on the night. You'd think from all this "Save Election Night" campaigning that things have been done this way since time immemorial.

But as some my readers will remember, there have been many parliamentary elections when the votes haven't been counted until the next day. In 1945 the votes weren't counted for a whole three weeks. I have no idea if the 1945 equivalent of the blogosphere got worked up about this. (The reason for such a lengthy delay was that time was needed to collect the votes of servicemen overseas.) At most other elections there have been many constituencies that have not counted on the night, usually because of the time it takes to bring all the ballot boxes together - has this caused uproar and fraud? Seats in Northern Ireland have almost always counted the next day after all!

Nor have governments always changed immediately on the day after polling. In 1929 polling day was on May 30th but Ramsay MacDonald didn't kiss hands until June 5th - was there widespread outrage at Stanley Baldwin still being in office for a few days?

And in many other countries the final result, and the change of leadership, often takes days on end. In the last Australian election polling was on November 24th but the formal result took nearly two weeks to finalise, and Kevin Rudd's government wasn't sworn in until December 3rd. In the last US Presidential election some of the counting went on into December.

Counts in Australia, the United States and many other countries take so long for one main reason - postal votes (and other forms of distant voting) do not reach the count by the end of polling day. The requirement is usually that the vote be sent by polling day, not that it be received by then. There are also other arrangements for remote voting in various countries, including one provision that allows a voter to walk into any polling station in the country on polling day, provide proof of their address and receive valid ballot papers for their local polling station that they are away from. Again these votes take time to make it back to the relevant count.

The way the count is done in many countries differs from our methods. Instead of taking all the ballot boxes to a central location and counting them on one site, they are often counted at the polling station and the individual results declared. The ballot papers can, of course, be recounted at a central location if the result is close and/or there are disputes over the rulings on questionable papers. This isn't so different from the European Parliament or devolved parliaments or Greater London Authority elections where for all the list elections and the London Mayoralty the votes are counted at several different locations.

Now in none of these cases did civilisation collapse just because the final election result wasn't available on the night. And in all of them the provision for postal/overseas/absent ballots meant that it wasn't possible.

Which brings us to the UK counts. Whilst simple cost and travel logistics are and always have been reasons for some seats not counting on the night, there is a new factor - the massive increase in postal voting on demand. With postal votes arriving even at the end of polling day the system going to come under a much greater strain than before in order to carry out accurate verification. That is going to make the whole thing take longer, increasing the risk of mistakes because the counting staff are ever more tired.

Speedy, sloppy election results benefit no-one. And if the election is incredibly close and hinges on one or two very tight seats, is it really in anyone's benefit if there are disputes and questions about the results in those seats because of the judgement calls made in a hurry to get the result out on the night?

If this means a lameduck government leaves office on a Saturday or Sunday rather than a Friday, so what? And yes it will mean political junkies don't get the full fun of results at 3 o'clock in the morning, but democracy should not be run as a spectator sport.

(And we've barely touched on the cost. Are the "Save Election Night" campaigners willing to personally stump up for the overtime rates? Or do they expect it to come out of our council taxes?)

So let's stop worrying about whether the vote is counted on the night or the next day and put election accuracy first. It may take a little longer but it will be well worth it.


Anonymous said...

A fair and balanced assessment as ever, but what do you recommend in Newham, where they still remain silent about what they plan to do - it could be mayoral, local and general. Tall order

Simon Harley said...

The example of Baldwin and Macdonald isn't particularly helpful. Baldwin retired to Chequers for the weekend following the election to decide what his options were in the face of the hung parliament. He could have remained Prime Minister until 25 June (and face Parliament), but chose to resign instead.


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