Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Count ... haa haa ha ha ha

You’re probably fed up reading about elections by now - but this post should finish it off for a (long) while. After all, couldn’t have an election without a count to get the result.

So what to say about Monday’s count?

Over three hundred people fenced in behind the metal crowd barriers generating processing the 488,891 votes cast. The first area sort the ballot papers in play at that point in the count by candidate. So during the morning had to split just under half a million ballots by first preference votes (and find the four thousand or so spoilt ballots). It’s a pretty frenetic effort, with staff standing in front of wire baskets mounted on homemade wooden stands labelled with candidate names.

sorting transfers

The second area check that they’ve got it right, looking through the bundles of sorted votes by candidate to make sure there are no mistakes. The third area count the sorted and checked ballots, grouping them in bundles of one hundred.

The counted ballots are then stored in big metal cabinets with piles of 1000 wrapped in coloured paper ribbons for easy counting. Most of the parties had someone keeping a close eye on the cabinets as the counting continued, totting up the bundles to get an early view of the first preference votes.

And during the first round, there’s a process to look at doubtful ballots and decide - in conjunction with party nominated representatives - whether they are valid ballots or should be counted as spoilt. According to media reports, there were people putting zeros on the ballot papers, a two page essay on the state of politics and various other novel contributions!

As the day goes on the number of baskets in the first area reduces, as do the number of ballots being sorted. However, as candidates get elected or excluded, their job becomes more complicated.

Alliance candidate Ian Parsley and Green's Steven Agnew shaking hands after being excluded from the count

In the first round, Bairbre de Brún was elected. However given that she was just over the quota, her transfers weren’t significant (three pages of logic omitted at this point!) and in the end both Steven Agnew and Ian Parsley were excluded from further stages of the count.

So the count staff in the first area had to take the Agnew and Parsley 1st preference ballots and re-sort them by second preference. But if an Agnew first preference transferred to Parsley (or de Brún), then the third preference would be used. And if there wasn’t a third preference, it would be filed as non-transferable. Just over 7,500 votes fell out of the process at this stage.

baskets for sorting transfers into

Red-bibbed count supervisors keep feeding new ballots to the sorters, checkers and counters keeping up momentum and making the count look like some kind of turn-of-the-last-century workhouse.

It’s a superb feat of organisation, helped by a training session, and despite the 80 votes that fell out of the calculations at one point in the afternoon and caused a partial recount!

After Friday’s shenanigans at the verification, metal barriers had been placed in front of the tables over the weekend to keep people at more of a distance and out of the count staffs’ hair. Though there was a lot less interest in what the count staff were doing once the first preference count was finished. Most people reckoned the final answer was obvious and the only question left was the order in which Nicholson and Dodds would be declared and whether they would reach the quota. But it was just a matter of time.

The other reason that interest was lost was that the verification on Friday was really the only opportunity for the parties to mine the electorate’s ballot papers to get a view of regional trends and find out how individual areas have polled (and transferred).

Final result from the 2009 European Election in Northern Ireland

Once the count starts, the ballot papers get mixed up during the sort, and can no longer be visually traced back to a particular ballot box, never mind a constituency. So other than cursory glances at progress, and some curiosity about the proportion of transfers from Jim Allister to the remaining candidates.

A surprising number of people stuck around to hear all seven candidates complete their speeches. But then we all like a bit of pantomime - even if it comes with a barb. TUV supporters turned their backs and booed Bairbre de Brún when she took to the podium. And they booed, but faced the right way, when Diane Dodds got up to speak. The Green Party’s Steven Agnew reminded the successful candidates that they had all committed to green policies in their manifestos.

TUV at one side, Bairbre de Brun at the other extreme

And as they left the building, somewhere inside the heart of all the count staff, I bet they thanked their lucky stars that de Brún’s deferred transfers never had to be brought out of the cupboards - as no one wanted an extra 126,184 votes to sort, check and count (in order to be proportionally shrunk back down to the 5040 excess).

Overall, looking back on the last week of election observing, it’s been an interesting experience, eye-opening, and from what I saw, one that leaves me with a huge respect for the integrity and professionalism of the electoral process in Northern Ireland. While there are small areas for improvement in the process - and perhaps huge opportunities for improvement in some candidates - there’s a pretty secure foundation to build on.

In the meantime, I’ll hang my election observer badge up on the back of the door and wait for the next election sooner (Autumn 2009) or later (May 2010).


Keith Anderson said...

Fantastic post Alan. Something I'd love to see first hand. Thanks for following this right the way through from vote to tote.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these very interesting posts on the election process Alan, a real insight into what goes on behind the scenes.

One point that needs to be addressed however is the absolutely ludicrous situation where we all voted on Thursday, but we had to wait until Monday before the count really got underway. There is simply no valid excuse for this in the 21st century.

NI is a tiny constituency even in the context of UK politics, nevermind within Europe as a whole. With a small effort the vote could be counted before anybody else in Europe. With electronic voting we could have a count within minutes of the close of Polls, and where better to introduce it than NI where we vote more often than anybody else?

Alan in Belfast said...

First to vote, last to count!

Traditionally, the UK votes on a Thursday unlike much of Europe that votes on a Sunday.

The EU countries are supposed to allow all the polls to close before declaring any results - in case a big swing in one state influences voters in another.

Netherlands "broke" the rules by declaring "preliminary" results early.

England, Scotland and Wales tend to start counting on Sunday afternoon - it's simple first past the post and not STV - ensuring that they don't have a result to announce until last evening.

It used to be security concerns that prevented overnight counts in NI. Mark Devenport suggested at the weekend that Northern Ireland's sabbatarian tendencies also meant that getting staff to work on a Sunday could be a problem.

Coke_Shy_Hero said...

Now don't start us all off on electronic voting! Anyway, what would Alan have to look at but for pencil (or nicked Argos pen) and paper! Hurrah for them, and hurrah for those that count, I say.

Mark said...

I'm happy to see I'm not the only person whose mind silently says "ha ha ha" whenever someone says "the count"!