Special stationery, 32-hour days and nervy waits: behind the scenes on polling day

WH 230514 Adur and Worthing local elections count. Photo by Derek Martin SUS-140524-002641001
WH 230514 Adur and Worthing local elections count. Photo by Derek Martin SUS-140524-002641001

PUTTING your ‘X’ in a box on election day is part of our national identity – but behind the scenes lies months of meticulous planning.

From the special election pencils to caffeine-fuelled officials working up to 32 hours without sleep, the big day can only go smoothly if hundreds of individuals pull together.

But even with the best intentions, the Great British Public can often cause a hitch.

“When I was presiding officer in London, I opened the doors to find a man with a writ on behalf of the residents of the galaxy,” said Alex Bailey, returning officer for Worthing West and East Worthing and Shoreham constituencies on May 7.

“While I smiled I thought what on earth do I do? You have to prepare for the extraordinary and diverse individuals.”

Polling day is a hectic time for the returning officer, who ensures the election is run lawfully, and presides over officers at the polling stations and counters who will pour through tens of thousands of voting forms.

Final preparations start the night before, with ballot boxes taken out of storage and delivered to polling stations along with the key pieces of equipment.

The ballot boxes are cleaned, filled with the contents of the polling station packs, including items such as stationery and signage.

Of key importance are the election pencils, ordered from a single Government-approved company, Shaws.

Mr Bailey said: “Once the election is completed, spare stationery is often distributed to local schools and charities.

“We have even had reports that electoral pencils have been sent to Africa.

“They are special in that they use a certain type of lead which is supposed to be very hard to rub out.”

Before the doors open, the ballot boxes are checked before being securely sealed.

Voters are admitted from 7am, with candidates often arriving at polling stations early.

Councillor Sean McDonald, elected last year, recalls ensuring he was first to the sole polling station in his ward.

He said: “I turned up at about 6.40am to get the best position and stood there for 15 hours. There was another candidate there who asked if I was going to stand there all day.

“I said ‘yes, I haven’t got anything better to do’.

“The count was a whole roller coaster of emotions. It was so nerve-racking and I was so taken aback to win.”

Dr James Walsh, who sits on West Sussex County Council, Arun District Council and Littlehampton Town Council, remembers the first time he was elected 40 years ago.

Dr Walsh said he could recall feeling ‘elated’ as he was declared winner at both district and borough level.

He said: “It was a combination of a campaign to get a swimming pool built in Littlehampton and trying to get other things improved in town and I’ve tried to continue that for the last 30 or 40 years.

“I was very elated, very relieved and very grateful that the people had responded to my campaign.”

One of the potential issues at polling stations during the day is the interference of ‘tellers’, who are tasked with counting the number of people turning out on behalf of various parties.

While they may approach voters outside polling stations, they must not intimidate, impede or see or hear what is happening inside, nor must they campaign for a particular candidate or issue.

Polls close at 10pm and for the first time, the rules have been changed to ensure anyone arriving at a polling station by the deadline is allowed to vote.

Hundreds were turned away across the country in 2010, despite queueing for several hours.

One thing which has not changed for decades, however, is the simplistic pencil and paper voting system.

“It’s probably not changed since 1832 Great Reform Act,” Mr Bailey said.

“We still use it and have a great affection for it. There’s something in our national psyche about turning up and putting your ‘X’ on a piece of paper.

“I still speak to a number of people about alternative methods and they still say ‘no, I like going to the polling station and putting my X on a piece of paper.”

When everyone has voted, presiding officers, who man the polling stations, will personally deliver the sealed ballot boxes to the count.

As boxes arrive, counters – who must not be related to a candidate and are selected by council elections teams – begin an arduous process called verification.

To minimise the risk of fraud, the number of ballot papers from each polling station must match with the amount which arrives at the count.

Votes received via post are also mixed in. The proper counts are expected to begin around 2am, with winners being declared at approximately 5am.

By this time, returning officers are approaching a 24-hour working day.

Mr Bailey said: “You can typically go 32 hours without sleep. It is fine, because you run on adrenaline.”

Ballot papers are counted in bundles of 25 and must be stored for 12 months in case of a legal challenge to the result.

One of the pitfalls of the voting process is ‘doubtful’ papers, where it is unclear which candidate has been voted for. Returning officers have an extensive booklet with legal cases and examples of doubtful papers.

Voters often miss the ‘X’ guidance, choosing to circle, cross out, write ‘yes’ or even number candidates – sometimes mixing a number of methods.

Mr Bailey said: “We ask people to put one cross on the ballot paper and most put one, or a tick or a circle.

“We put any that are not clear in a tray and when we get stuck we will call election agents over and it can get pretty fierce for a while.

“We try to understand the intention of the voter.”

Visit our Election 2015 page for a list of candidates standing.