Having been a Civil Servant for almost 30 years I was aware of the impact elections have on central government. I had been one of the people updating websites with new names, new departments and new policies which invariably was done at a speed of knots and with a lot of scrutiny.
What I hadn’t done was be at the ‘business’ end of the election process. That changed with the recent local government elections, where myself and two team members were lucky enough to be granted access to the election count as observers. Emma went to Bridgend, Paul went to Caerphilly and I spent the day at Chepstow Leisure Centre with the Monmouthshire officers managing the count.
Firstly, I’d like to say a big thank you to the people who put up with my questions all day, especially Paul, the Chief Executive, John who managed the count and Matt and Deb who were ‘mission control’ for checking the count against the ballot totals and either uploading the results or sending the ‘table supervisor’ back to count again!
The day started about 8am. Wales had decided not to count overnight, which had been the traditional process; I spoke to some council officers and some candidates and the general feeling was that many preferred the hectic feeling of the overnight count. The buildup of excitement for the candidates was something they looked forward to. Officers said that overnight was a very long day, but that some of the team who had polling duties didn’t really relax that evening knowing they would be back for the count early the next day.
Once the counting tables were set up, counters seated at tables and ballot boxes assigned by wards, everyone was prepped and ready to go. The first count is simply a validation – does the number of ballot papers in the ballot box correspond to the number of ballots recorded at the polling station? Basically, if at the end of polling the ballot box has 100 ballots, then there should be 100 in the box when it’s opened. The postal votes are all in a different sealed box ready to be added to the totals.
We’ve all seen the sports halls full of people on long tables counting votes, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the number of press people around alongside the candidates and their agents. The hall is a hive of activity with ‘table supervisors’ coming back and forth to the control desk with counts every couple of minutes. Candidates and their agents observe the counts from the other side of the tables. They have clipboards and are recording what they see on the ballots as they are being counted. This gives them an early indication of the way the vote might go.
Once the initial ballot count has ended huge sheets of paper called ‘grass skirts’ are taken to all the tables and ballots are stuck to them, and then the votes for each candidate in the ward are counted. Any unused votes are also added up. So in multi-member wards you might get to vote for 3 people, but some might only vote for 1 or 2 or even 0. These unused votes are tallied to give an overall number of votes that could have been cast, those that were actually cast, and how many votes each candidate has received.
Some councils are moving away from this paper-based process, and at Bridgend spreadsheets were used for the multi-member ward counts. These worked in a similar way to the grass skirts, but one counter would read out which candidates had received a vote, and another counter would enter the corresponding numbers into the spreadsheet via a keypad. Spreadsheets were displayed on screens on the observer side of the tables so people could watch the counts as they were taking place.
The most exciting part of the process is the declaration. This is where the Returning Officer, in Monmouthshire it’s Paul Matthews and a translator reads out the results in English and in Welsh, and the winning candidate says a few words of thanks. Our friends from the press are usually waiting for this part of the proceedings as this is where the story might be. And at these elections, it really was.
There were three points of interest for the press at Monmouthshire. Firstly, and most importantly this local authority now has a 50/50 split of men and women Councillors. So much great work has been done across Wales to attract new and diverse talent into these governance roles and it’s working. It looks like the number of women has increased to the highest it’s ever been in Wales, and alongside Monmouthshire we also have a 50/50 split in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Secondly, there was a change from being a Conservative-led council to one with no overall control. There were other similar stories around the UK, however in Wales Monmouthshire had been ‘blue’ for a long time. Now Labour have the most Councillors, but not a majority, so it joins the long list of ‘no party majority’ councils in Wales.
And finally, we had a Councillor declared following a coin toss. Believe me when I say that the effort the officers went to when counting, recounting and getting a different set of counters to recount was immense. They did everything possible to make sure that the numbers were right before we were left with a dead heat. Sadly, that was the case, and Paul had the task of tossing the coin which would decide the fate of two dedicated public servants. It was tense and it was horrible, and I was only watching. Paul was brilliant. He was clear and firm before and during the toss, but then compassionate and caring afterwards. Frankly no one thought it was a fitting way to end a campaign, but those are the rules and they were followed to the letter.
So, why were my team at the counts? Was it just idle curiosity? Did we have nowhere better to go on a sunny Friday in May? And the answer of course is ‘digital’. There are always conversations in Local Gov about how voting and counting can be done more quickly, more cheaply, but maintaining accuracy, scrutiny and security. We went to witness the ‘as is’ process. To talk to the people with experience and to understand what could, and indeed, should change. We could see many opportunities for some digital intervention and I’m sure over the coming months there will be many more conversations about pilot tests we could do to both make the voting process more streamlined and improve voter experience and engagement.
That said, even if the process was digital it would not have affected the outcome of the election, or done away with the need for the coin toss. So there is much to do and Electoral Reform will be a topic of great debate – probably, forever!