Please note that this piece was first published on the PSA Blog on 06 May 2015, and is available here.
By Alistair Clark
As the polls close and everyone settles down to watch election night on TV, spare a thought for the many thousands of election administrators who run polling day and the count afterwards. They are in many ways the ‘unsung heroes’ of our elections process; working hard, under considerable scrutiny and pressure to deliver an accurate and reliable result. Election day is long. Polls open at 7am, but the polling station workers are there an hour before to set the polling station up, before working all day until closing time at 10pm. The count won’t finish until well into the morning, and for those 279 councils also running local elections, often not until the following day.
After the polls close, sealed ballot boxes are transported to a central counting facility in the local council’s area. There they are logged and stored securely before being transported to the tables where they will be counted by count staff. Before counting, the first process that votes go through is known as verification. This makes sure that the number of ballot papers in the box are the same as have been signed off in the polling station before being transported. Only once this has been done successfully can the count begin.
This is all observed by party agents, in many count centres by the media, and increasingly by electoral observers authorised by the Electoral Commission. Once votes are counted, those which have been rejected are examined by party agents to confirm their agreement that these votes should not be included in the vote for candidates, although they are reported separately. Once totals are known, these are reported to the candidates prior to the official declaration by the returning officer. Once this has been done, the official declaration is made to the waiting audience and media.
This is a complex process which can take some time. The Press Association have estimated expected declaration times for all constituencies. In five of the most recent elections Sunderland and its three constituencies has been widely noted for being the first of anywhere in the UK to declare, within an hour of the polls closing. This year, it faces a challenge from its North-East neighbour, Newcastle, which is aiming to speed up its count by moving to larger count premises and employing additional staff to help bring in and transport ballot boxes. Seats in County Durham are also scheduled to declare early. Early results will undoubtedly be pored over for signs of how all parties are performing. One of the earliest marginals to declare looks likely to be Nuneaton at around 1am.
The majority of seats are likely to declare between 2am and 5am. Declarations can be delayed by the size and complexity of the electorate being administered, whether or not the local authority running the count are also running concurrent local elections, and whether they are managing multiple constituencies. Requests for recounts in close races also add time. Constituencies which take most time are often large and rural, with long distances between polling stations and the count centre. Sometimes transport arrangements delay things. In Scotland for example flights and boats from the Islands are often delayed because of weather conditions. Other incidents can also occur. Northern Ireland has only recently begun counting overnight due to the improved security situation there, but in 2010 election counts in Derry had to be suspended because of a bomb scare.
What to Look Out For
A number of things will have analysts poring over the numbers as they roll in:
1. How well has Labour been able to take votes and seats from both the Conservatives, and also the Liberal Democrats? Labour has to be making considerable inroads here if it is to lead the next government.
2. How have the Liberal Democrats stood up to the onslaught? Will their much vaunted incumbency and community politics mean that they have been able to maintain a sizeable number of seats which will prove crucial in post-election bargaining?
3. How well have the Conservatives been able to defend their record and minimize any swing away from the party?
4. Have the SNP, as expected, taken the vast majority of seats in Scotland, from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats?
5. Although much vaunted in the European elections in 2014, the UKIP tide seems to have receded somewhat and they have seemed under pressure in an electoral system and set of elections not best suited to them. Three issues are of interest with UKIP: have they won any seats; to what extent have they taken votes from the main parties, thereby affecting the outcome of certain seats; and whether they have come second in many constituencies, giving them a potential base for the future.
6. What role has tactical voting had in the outcome?
7. To what extent will the large number of constituencies where the sitting MP is retiring affect the result in favour of another party?
There are numerous lists of key seats to look out for put together by the New Statesman; the Telegraph and the BBC to name a few. Not all of these agree, often citing different factors in selecting various constituencies. Marginal constituencies are obviously crucial in answering the questions raised above. There are too many of these to list here. Often however the most interest and excitement comes from seeing important party personalities either successfully defend or lose their seats. The ‘were you still up for Portillo’ moment in 1997 is rightly famous. Whether there will be other such moments in 2015 remains to be seen, but here are some of the seats to look out for in this regard.
Sheffield Hallam: Defended by Nick Clegg. Polling suggests he is under pressure, but should hang on. Crucial to the post-election outcome, as without Clegg, unclear how the Lib Dems would approach coalition negotiations.
Thanet South: Can Nigel Farage win? This looks tight. If Farage loses, expect him to give up the party leadership.
Thurrock: No big personalities, but a possible win for UKIP. Also worth looking for whether they’ve held Clacton with Douglas Carswell and Rochester and Strood with Mark Reckless.
Paisley & Renfrewshire South: Held by Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Labour Party election campaign guru. A safe Labour seat under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances and there are no safe Labour or Liberal Democrat seats in Scotland this election.
East Renfrewshire: Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy’s seat. Same applies. Murphy, assuming he remains leader if he loses, will be seeking a seat in the Scottish Parliament in 2016. If he wins, this suggests a by-election is likely in this seat after May 2016.
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey: Defended by Danny Alexander, Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Expect him to lose. If both he and Clegg lose, it is likely to put any Con-Lib Dem deal under pressure.
Gordon: The SNP’s Alex Salmond is contesting this from long-term Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce, who is standing down. Salmond currently holds the equivalent seat at Holyrood. Expect him to win.
Wirral West: A Merseyside constituency, defended by Conservative Employment Minister Esther McVey. It needs a 3% swing for Labour to win.
Brighton Pavilion: Has Caroline Lucas held onto her seat for the Greens?
Bradford West: Has George Galloway held his seat won in a by election in 2012 for Respect?
From all of us at PSA, enjoy election night. Spare a thought for all the election workers and defeated candidates. And get ready for the local election count later in the day from the 279 local authorities also holding elections on May 7th!
Alistair Clark is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University and PSA Trustee. He is the author of Political Parties in the UK (Palgrave), and his most recent article in Public Administration examines the British electoral process from the viewpoint of electoral administration. He tweets @ClarkAlistairJ.
Image: Coventry City Council CC BY-NC-ND