Back From the Count…

Yesterday, I took an hour out to do a spot of Telling outside a poll station for a local Isle of Wight council election (recounted here: Throughts on Telling….). Today I went along to the count…

The venue was a sports hall; along the back wall were the ballot boxes full sight. Numbered tables were arranged in a U shape, with counters sitting on the inside and observers stood outside the U, and announcements made as to what ballot was to be counted on what table. Boxes were brought to the appropriate table, and the parcel ties securing the lids cut off; ballot papers were then placed on the table and taken up by the counters. The first pass was to just count the ballot papers and arrange them so they were all the same way up. The papers were then taken away from the table, before being returned to it (I’m not sure why?)

The second pass was the actual count. Papers were sorted into piles corresponding to vote cast (only one vote per paper), and bundled in piles of 25 votes secured by a bulldog clip with clips open. When all the votes were counted, the open clipped bundles (corresponding to bundles for a particular candidate) were reallocated to different counters on the same table and counted again. If the tally was correct (25 papers in a bundle) it was reclipped with clips closed.

Bundles were then arranged by candidate in piles of four (i.e. 100 votes per pile) and checked off as bundles for the final count value. (A final unclipped pile in each column represented the remaining votes for that candidate.)

Where there was uncertainty as the validity of a ballot paper, the counter placed it into a wire in-tray. The returning officer adjudicated on the validity of votes in agreement with the agents or party reps. Typical rejected papers were no vote cast/no mark made, or two marks made. When rejection was agreed on, the paper was stamped with a red “rejected” mark and placed into a second wire in-tray. Where uncertain marks were made, e.g. a cross to the left of the ballot paper rather than in the square on the right, a decision was made by the returning officer, again acquiesced to by the agents, as to whether the voter had made a clear preference for one of candidates by the way they had made their mark. If agreed on, the vote was accepted.

A second sort of ballot was also being counted for local town council elections, where voters could make two marks on one ballot paper (which was a different colour to the Island council ballot paper); that is, they could vote for two candidates.

Piled ballot papers obviously doesn’t work in this case, so pieces of A4 paper, in landscape view with the names of the candidates down the left hand side in the same order as they appeared on the ballot paper were used to tally results. Each piece of paper had 25 (or was it 20?) columns and corresponded to one ballot paper. For piles of 25 (or 20?) papers, the votes on the top ballot paper were placed in the first column (a 1 marking a vote cast for the appropriate candidate), the second ballot paper the next column, and so on. Tallying across the rows gave the number of votes cast in that bundle for a particular candidate. Again, an open clips bulldog clip was used to secure a bundle of papers to a tally sheet. These were then recounted and if a match was made, reclipped with closed clips.

A second form (the ‘master sheet’), again with candidates names defining rows arranged down the left hand side, was used to collate totals from the tally sheets. Each column represented the votes cast as recorded on a particular ballot sheet. A desk calculator was then used to total across the rows. As two master sheets were required for the count I saw, the totals from the first sheet were added as an additional column on the second master sheet. Summing across the rows on this second sheet, and adding in the votes carried over from the first sheet, to give the final count. As a witness to the event, I was thinking it’d be handy to have something like, err, an iPad, laid out like the forms, but offering a simple spreadsheet view so that row totals could be calculated automatically, just to offer a quick check. As it was, I did a mental summation to check overall totals were right-ish…

The scope for error in this second style of vote seemed much more likely (several points of failure: creating the tally, counting the tally, transferring tally scores, summing rows, transferring master totals from one sheet to another, final summation). The checking process is further complicated by the fact that there is a mismatch between the number of ballot papers and the number of valid voting marks made; (not all voters voted for two candidates). It struck me that during the initial sort, ballot papers could be put into piles corresponding to 1 or 2 marks made as a way of trying to keep a matching overall vote count check in place (i.e. so it would be easier to check that the votes cast in the final result was more easily auditable from ballot paper bundles).

All in all, a fascinating experience…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...