If you’ve lived in the same place for a long time, then you’ll have been returning to the same polling station once every year or so when an election is called. So on Thursday as an election observer (having already witnessed postal ballots being opened on Tuesday) it was intriguing to tour around fifteen or so polling stations on the way into work and (mostly) on the way home. Now fifteen out of the 620 polling stations (holding the 1551 ballot boxes) isn’t an enormous sample, but it’s more than I’ve ever been into before!
Up front I’ve got to say that everyone I met working in the polling stations I visited and observed was really friendly and helpful. Thousands of people employed across Northern Ireland yesterday to keep the polls open. Some motivated by the money; others by the craic; many second generation election helpers. All different backgrounds and ages. But all very switched on, and very committed to running an uneventful poll. Presiding officers who had been up at the scraic of dawn to collect the empty boxes and ballot papers from local police stations, and who wouldn’t get to bed until the boxes were secured and returned.
There was near-universal approval from polling staff for the changes to identification. They said they felt bad turning people away at previous elections with driving licences and passports that were in some cases only a day out of date. So lifting the restriction for the id to be still valid was welcomed. And large numbers of voters had brought along Smartlink passes.
Thumbs up too for not having to record what identification was used by each voter. Though still some problems with people bring work passes, taxi licenses, a Polish election identity card, passports issued in maiden names without a marriage licence to explain the change, and a report from Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church Hall in Lisburn of cluster of people arriving with their blue disabled vehicle passes (which now have photographs).
And reports of people at nearly every polling station who were surprised not to be on the electoral register - many of whom had turned up at their regular station assuming that poll cards had been misplaced in the post, and all of who seemed to be redirected towards the Electoral Office Helpline.
Since it’s well after the event, and the turnout has been announced following Friday’s verification, I’ll be giving away any secrets to say that I found polling pretty light in East Belfast around 5pm - not finding more than one voter in any building. Bumped into Jim Nicholson who had called into Belmont Primary as part of his own tour. West Belfast was a lot busier (though it was nearer tea time) with off-duty black taxis ferrying people up to vote. South Belfast was a bit more varied.
In the polling stations I visited, no one had asked for or made use of the voting instructions that had been translated into Polish, Portuguese and Simple English.
The accessibility improvements seemed to have been well used too. Where there was no convenient alternative entrance, portable ramps were in place, and in some polling stations they reported that good use had been made of them by older voters in wheelchairs and walking frames. Though the one at Brownlee Primary School in Lisburn was a bit too short and pivoted on the middle step, making it a hazard for the woman I spotted going up it with a walking frame. Over at St Kevin’s Primary School in West Belfast, the flat wheelchair route down from the car park to the main door is visually hidden, and with no signage up, people were tripping down the steps on crutches unaware that the smooth path was to the left.
Signage of some polling stations was poor too. Travelling around so many made me a bit like someone moving to a new area, visiting their polling station for the first time. While the map on the front of the polling card gives you a big clue, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the actual entrance to the school or hall is. Particularly when polling is light and there aren’t hundreds of people flooding in and out of the gate.
Driving up to Oakwood Integrated Primary School at The Cutts I expected to see a POLLING STATION poster up at the entrance on the main road. But it was only once you’d gone up the winding driveway and into the car park that signs appeared. Same story at Knock Presbyterian in East Belfast where the pedestrian gate might have been labelled, but the vehicle entrance to its car park fifty metres up the road and round a slight bend wasn’t labelled. And once parked up, no clue as to which building or hall to head towards.
A surprising number of polling stations had car parks on the grounds, but a lot of the time it wasn’t obvious, and I wasn’t alone in parking outside on the street and then walking for what seemed like miles through the grounds to reach the polling station. Christ the Redeemer Primary School, Lagmore Drive was a particularly hard polling station to find, buried in a valley to one side of the road, with a long and steep footpath down in.
While the voting cards do include a map and the full postal address and postcode of the polling stations, it would be helpful for Electoral Observers and agents visiting multiple stations if the Electoral Office’s lists of polling stations by constituency included post codes and house numbers.
Sometimes the locations were more obvious given the throng of party activists (sometimes called tellers) handing out leaflets at the gate - and in some cases samples, of completed ballot papers with a 1 beside their party's name “to encourage you to vote for us”. In previous elections, activists and leaflet givers had to stay out of the polling premises, and could come no closer than the footpath. I found the polling stations where they were inside the grounds a lot easier to get in and out of as they spread out better inside the grounds than standing in a crush, blocking people trying to get through a narrow gate.
Since the Chief Returning Officer in Northern Ireland is not the Chief Executive of the local council, he feels he can control who comes in and out of the building he has commandeered for the day, but has no say (unlike a council CEO) on who comes onto the property surrounding the bricks and mortar.
But polling staff at some stations told me that the new relaxed rules had created hassles when politicians had turned up, didn’t understood the changes, and then made a big fuss - emotions run high on polling day - forcing calls to be made back to the Electoral Office.
As well as activists outside polling stations, you might have noticed tables inside, usually marked with a sign indicating that anyone sitting there was a political representatives. If they sign up and attend, they can inside and make sure that the polling station staff aren’t being hoodwinked by people coming into vote twice, or coming in from other areas to impersonate local voters. Anecdotally, they may sometimes in past elections been used by parties to keep a close eye on who hasn’t yet voted and get the word out to mobilise transport to ensure that their vote isn’t lost.
Presiding officers in West Belfast commented on the extra polling clerks that had been allocated to their stations in the run up to polling day. As part of an experiment, the Electoral Office placed extra clerks in some stations to sit alongside the political agents inside. Unable to perform normal polling duties, they couldn’t be used to relieve the other staff. One of the extra clerks explained how boring the day had been - watching, watching, and yet more watching - with only a few words scribbled on a sheet to say “no incidents by 12 noon” to show for it. Next time round he wanted to be doing the real work.
But to be fair, the presiding officers who mentioned their extra staff felt no animosity towards them personally. But it had come as a bit of a surprise to the local political agents and activists, and surprises made for bad feeling, and bad feeling made for extra hassle on the shoulders of the presiding officers.
A lot of the polling stations were pretty quiet all day. But in two of the busier ones (still not as busy as they expected), Presiding Officers spoke positively about the central instruction that they display the number of ballots issued for each ballot box on a small poster at noon, 5pm and 9pm. For once, political agents weren’t continually pestering them for a running total. However, there was a large variation on where the polling snapshots were displayed. Some stations stuck them to the front door, put them up in the hallway on the way in, on the edge of the tables holding the ballot boxes, or up on the walls.
Now I thought there were rules about parking vehicles semi-permanently outside polling stations with large advertisements. In some cases, the posters strapped to school railings were enormous and nearly the size of vehicles anyway. In a couple of the polling stations I visited, opposite the entrance and a bit to the side was a parked van (with a poster mounted on the back in such a way as it couldn’t have been driven without removing it) and a caravan (poll HQ for the transport coordinators).
There’ll be another post about Friday’s verification at the count.