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Explainer: how Britain counts its votes

‘A smiley face? Seriously?’ EPA/Julie Howden

The British election exit poll shocked pollsters and media commentators alike by giving the Conservatives a strong lead of 316 seats over Labour’s 239. Polls had predicted the two parties would be deadlocked with fewer than 300 seats each. But of course, as the cliché goes, there’s only one poll that matters – the one the British people actually vote in. So how do vote counters across the country bring in the results every five years?

It’s not the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the votes. That well-worn quote is apocryphally attributed to Stalin, who of course found rather less subtle ways of eliminating his opponents.

Whoever came up with it, the aphorism raises a real question: in the hundreds of local counts taking place across the UK in the aftermath of the 2015 general election, who will be doing what?

They’ll be counting not just general election ballots for one or more constituencies, but in many places votes cast for unitary, district, parish and town councillors, plus the occasional elected mayor and local referendum.

Here is a brief cast list, and a summary guide to what should happen.

Who’s who

Running the whole show in each seat and getting a moment’s media glory by announcing the constituency results is the Acting Returning Officer (ARO), who’s usually a local authority chief executive.

They’re acting not because the proper returning officer forgot the date, but because in England and Wales (though not Scotland), the general overseeing role is purely honorary. Responsibility for the detailed organisation of the elections – from nominations, distribution of poll cards and ballot papers, to the conduct of the poll and counting of votes – is entirely the ARO’s.

Acting officers receive an additional remuneration for the election period, but they’re also legally and potentially financially responsible for screw-ups by any election staff.

The counting itself is done by temporary staff known as, well, counters. They work in teams, under supervisors and under pressure – especially in Sunderland.

For reasons best known to itself, Sunderland gets its thrills every five years by being the first count to declare its results. With the polls not closing until 10.00pm, its midnight target is ambitious, but the ARO pulls out all stops, reportedly going so far as to rig traffic lights, so the ballot box vans get an uninterrupted journey to the count.

Houghton & Sunderland South declares the first result of the 2010 election.

Also allowed into the count are election agents, protecting the interests of their candidate, and accredited observers, who, unlike agents, are impartial and report anything untoward to election officials.

Stage 1: counting the ballot papers

The count opens with the ceremonial unsealing of the ballot boxes, both those from the polling stations and those containing the postal ballots, which have already been opened and verified but the actual votes not yet counted. The ballot papers are emptied on to the counting tables, and, in the manner of a stage magician, the emptiness of the boxes displayed to the assembled observers.

All ballot papers are then counted, the counters ensuring the number of papers in each box matches the ballot paper account – the form completed by the presiding officer at either the polling station or the opening and verification of the postal ballot packs.

If the numbers don’t match, there are recounts until they do match or the same number of ballots is recorded twice in succession.

Stage 2: counting the votes

First, ballot papers from different boxes are mixed, to preserve the secrecy of the vote. They are then allocated to count teams, who sort the papers by the candidate voted for – each voter in the UK’s plurality electoral system being allowed, of course, only one unambiguous X vote.

Watch out for papercuts. EPA/Lindsey Parnaby

If the voter’s X is not clearly in the box next to a candidate, it becomes a “doubtful” paper, with the ARO or deputy adjudicating on its validity. But nowadays, the aim is to divine the voter’s intention wherever possible, and only where it is completely unclear or disputed is the ballot paper actually rejected.

With “Wank, wank, good guy, wank” having been recently deemed a valid vote (cast for the SNP), it’s reasonably safe to say a tick, a “Yes”, or a smiley face are all likely to be accepted. If a candidate’s agent objects, the objection is recorded, but again, it’s ultimately the ARO’s decision.

With sorting completed, each candidate’s votes are then counted, plus any rejected votes, and the total checked against the total number of ballot papers recorded in the first count.

Stage 3: the result

The ARO then shares the provisional result with the candidates and their agents, at which point either a candidate or agent may request a recount of the votes. There are no rules defining either how close a result needs to be to qualify for a recount or the number of recounts – seven being the current record, jointly held by Brighton Kemptown (1964) and Peterborough (1966).

Again, it’s the ARO’s decision whether to allow a recount. After all, some recount requests are inevitably made simply to try and save losing candidates’ £500 deposits, which are forfeited if they win less than 5% of the vote.

There hasn’t been a constituency tied vote in a general election since Ashton-under-Lyne declined to pick a winner in 1886. But they occur frequently in local elections, and the convention is that, if the votes remain level after recounts, the ARO will decide the winner by a random method acceptable to the candidates concerned – perhaps tossing a coin, or as in one recent case, having the candidates draw different length cable ties inserted into a legal text book.

If we end up with a dead heat in the two leading parties’ House of Commons seats, as seems entirely possible, it would be heartening to see it resolved so reasonably and amicably.

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