Out for the count: is this the end of late-night elections?

16 Mar 10
As the general election approaches, many returning officers want to delay counting votes until the following day – but the government is trying to stop them. Lucy Phillips reports
By Lucy Phillips

16 March 2010

As the general election approaches, many returning officers want to delay counting votes until the following day – but the government is trying to stop them. Lucy Phillips reports

The general election, expected on Thursday, May 6, will see party leaders go head-to-head in live television debates for the first time. Less well known is that the subsequent drama of vote counting on polling night is under threat. While last-ditch attempts by MPs to preserve the tradition have essentially failed, their tinkering is throwing months of planning up in the air, risking confusion and recounts.

The storm began last month when the government, with cross-party support, tried to push through a change to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. This would require all returning officers to start counting within four hours of the polls closing, bar exceptional circumstances set out by the justice secretary.

MPs were concerned by reports that up to a quarter of returning officers wanted to break with tradition and do the count on the following day because of increasing numbers of postal votes and staff overtime costs. While Justice Secretary Jack Straw went on to claim that returning officers were delaying counts ‘for their own convenience’, shadow justice minister Eleanor Laing said: ‘Postponing election counts until the next day would have sucked all the excitement and drama out of general election night.’ This sentiment was backed by political junkies, and a Facebook campaign to ‘save general election night’ attracted thousands of supporters.   
But the proposals opened up a rift with the government’s own civil servants, the elections regulator and council chiefs. They branded the changes ‘impracticable and unworkable’ as it was impossible to anticipate all local circumstances that would justify a delay. Consequently, ministers watered down the amendment to the law, prescribing that returning officers take ‘reasonable steps’ to begin the count by 2am. Those that don’t must still send a statement to the Electoral Commission within 30 days of polling, explaining why there was a delay and setting out the steps that were taken to mitigate it. The watchdog is due to issue guidance to returning officers on the changes imminently.    

Despite the government’s softer stance, council chiefs and the Electoral Commission maintain that accuracy is more important than speed and entertainment. Moreover, they say, ministers should not be breaking parliamentary custom by changing election laws during the six month run-up to polling day, when planning is already under way.

The wide-ranging constitutional reform Bill, which covers everything from reform of the House of Lords to more transparent financial reporting to Parliament, is likely to be passed in the April ‘wash-up’ before the election. As the poll must legally be held before June 3, councils will need to revisit their preparations to ensure they have taken all reasonable steps to carry out the count on polling night.

David Monks, chair of the electoral matters panel for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, tells Public Finance: ‘I’m not happy about all these amendments taking place a couple of months before the election. Returning officers will need to reconsider what steps it is reasonable to make to start by 2am. We need to rethink our processes on the basis this may become law.’

Monks, who is chief executive of Huntingdonshire District Council and the returning officer for the Huntingdon constituency, adds that in many cases staff have already been recruited on the basis of doing the count on the Thursday night or Friday morning, with venues booked and transport links arranged. ‘We don’t have unlimited resources. It’s complicated and people don’t understand we have to prepare well in advance,’ he says. 

A spokeswoman from the Electoral Commission agrees that late changes to election laws are a concern. ‘It runs the risk of it having an adverse impact on the running of an election... Clearly, any departure from [convention] would need to be very carefully considered.’

But a Ministry of Justice spokesman retorts that the Bill is being amended to retain ‘a vital part of our political heritage’ and will aid the ‘continued health of our democracy’. The changes recognised that a speedy count would not be possible in every constituency, but would allow ‘any interested party – be they voter, candidate or broadcaster – to hold a returning officer to account regarding their compliance’, he adds.

Geographical logistics have long been accepted as a reason for delaying the count to the next day (in some rural areas polling stations are so scattered that a Friday count has become the norm). But one of the biggest additional complications since the 2005 general election has been the increase in postal voting, which requires a more stringent verification process; postal votes now have to be checked against signatures and dates of birth.

Gillian Friar, electoral services manager at Warwick District Council, says this is the main reason they want to begin counting the morning after the polls close. She says the returning officer wants staff to be ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Forcing them to stay up all night risked mistakes, particularly as Labour won the Warwick and Leamington seat by only a small majority in 2005.

Warwick is not alone. Monks predicts an upsurge in the number of councils doing a Friday count regardless of the Bill. He says staff can’t be expected to work long hours without breaks and not make mistakes. The priority is to get ‘an accurate count that people have confidence in. We want to get it right, we don’t want people to make allegations of irregularities in postal voting. We need to take our time and get it properly planned.’

According to the latest figures from the Electoral Commission, 60 of the 650 constituencies (or 9%) currently plan to begin counting the day after polling day, and 105 (16%) remain undecided. In 2005, only 27 constituencies did a Friday count. This year a number of councils, including Birmingham with its many constituencies, have also indicated that the day of the count depends on whether the election coincides with local elections on May 6, further stretching resources and making a Thursday night count unlikely.

Cost might prove a further disincentive for a 2am count, particularly given the current squeeze on local authority finances. While parliamentary elections are funded by central government (at an estimated cost of £80–£90m this time around), councils must pick up the tab for local ones. So if they run a combined poll they will have to pay extra for night staff.

The Local Government Association tells PF that a ‘substantial minority’ of councils intend to switch counting to May 7 if the general election goes ahead on the Thursday, with saving money ‘a contributing factor’. A spokesman says: ‘If a council wants to move [the count] to the Friday, it will be cheaper in terms of not paying staff to stay up all night.’

But London Councils, which represents the capital’s 33 local authorities, says it is not aware of any borough planning to start the count on Friday – despite some potentially having to deal with three sets of votes (national, local and borough mayoral elections).

A spokesman says: ‘The expectation nationwide is that the count should happen through the night. Nobody in London is going to get the votes, verify them and then go home for the night. They are going to get going straightaway.’

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