There are two opinions on what verification of ballots is all about, and only one of them is backed by law!
The Electoral Office need to verify the number of ballot slips in each of the ballot boxes. Without that figure, you can’t set the quota that’s needed for the Single Transferable Vote (STV) process to work.
The actual counting of the votes cast (first preferences, complicated maths with second preferences etc) won’t happen until Monday after the polls have closed across the rest of Europe. But nothing to stop the time-consuming verification happening before that.
You can tell a valid ballot paper by the markings on its back. So verification consists of breaking the seals that keep the boxes closed, tip their contents out onto a table, and verify that the box is now empty. Then it’s simply a matter of taking each ballot from the pile and setting it face down in piles that can be easily counted, and recounted.
Of course that’s where the other definition of verification comes in: getting an early peek at the first preference results.
Once all the count staff had been through security, been parked present and found a seat, another queue formed at the single way in and out of the count pen. Politicians and their agents, armed with multicoloured clipboards and pens. As an electoral observer standing inside the hall, it’s factual to say that the DUP quickly formed an enormous group at the head of the queue.
A couple of days ago, as a count virgin, I showed my innocence by asking why the political parties would bother turning up to the verification? After all, a couple of representatives would be enough to check no one was dropping ballot papers on the floor or stuffing them up their jumper.
Being clever and more aware of the ways of the world, you’ll already know the reality. But just in case, I’ll let you into the poorly kept secret! It turns out that in the process of tipping the ballot papers out onto the desk, some fall out face up. And while the count staff are lifting them and neatly stacking them in face down piles, the political agents can keep a running tally on their clipboards of the first preferences they can see.
A random sample of the box. And once they know the final number of votes cast in that box, they can multiply up their proportions to estimate the final tally of first preferences. Do that for enough boxes, across enough constituencies, and the parties can have a fairly good indication of who’s going to meet the quota or not on Monday.
It seems to be part of the election game. An urgency to translate their gut feelings into an approximation of a result that may be proved correct several days later. Of course, it’s not really meant to happen - though I’m struggling to find the rule that prohibits trending or anonymous sampling as long as no one talks about what they see:
European Parliamentary Election (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004
(3) No person attending at the verification of the ballot paper accounts or shall express to any person an opinion based on information obtained at that verification the likely result of the election.
Some political agents and politicians are quite pushy about the whole process of tallying: some maybe more aggressive than pushy. Leaning well over the table, inches away from the count staff’s hands to peer at the votes (and try and see the number 1 pen mark coming through the paper) seemed to put a lot of pressure on some count staff and make them uncomfortable.
Some of the agents/politicians didn’t take kindly to being asked to move back by count supervisors, complaining that they wanted to verify that the ballot papers were valid and they should be placed face up so they could check that they were filled in properly … oh, and get an easier look at which candidates they voted for. But of course weeding out the spoilt ballots is part of the count process on Monday. If it had been an Assembly election the verification and count would be separated by minutes, not a weekend.
Others took a more deferential stance, hunkering down in front of the tables to try and catch a view of the underside of the papers as they were being set on the table. Can’t resist wondering out loud whether Ian Paisley Junior was praying for votes!
Yet others found friendly count staff who might “innocently” turn the ballots vote side up in view of the agents before setting them down. Or in one case, piling them up vote side up in piles of ten or twenty in his hand while the political agents captured a perfect tally before setting them in bundles on the table. From what I saw, count supervisors tended to catch on pretty quickly and move to stop staff helping the agents.
The only candidate I spotted while I was there in the morning was the Green Party’s Steven Agnew, who was there doing his own tallying. But Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley MP & MLA) and Ian Paisley Junior (North Antrim MLA) were there in person to scribble down tallies and see how their own constituencies were voting. Maybe fearful of any change in voting patterns that could unsettle polls in other assembles and parliaments?
And in some cases, I wondered whether two reps from the same party weren’t looking at key areas, maybe one doing first preferences, the other trying to see where their second preferences would come from.
Many of the count staff were regulars. Some even turned up early to get seats at tables near the entrance and be able to follow the comings and goings through out the day. It’s a bit stop start, so there’s plenty of opportunity to look around .Some had been manning polling stations the day before - several recognised me and said hello as they came in! The pay’s ok, but at around ten pounds an hour minus tax for twelve hours today and probably about seven hours on Monday, it’s not going to earn any of them a terribly big duck house or moat. But the crack seemed good, and other than the odd deviation away from the mandate to keep ballots face down, everything was well ordered and professional.
The post is all a bit wordy, but it hopefully gives a bit of insight into the process playing out in the Kings Hall, and doubles as a first draft of my report back to the Electoral Commission!