Monday, September 07, 2009

Save General Election Night!

Even from Armenia I cannot resist the blandishments of ConservativeHome's Jonathan Isaby, who has written the best defence yet of maintaining election counts on a Thursday night. The more I think it about the more annoyed I become that certain councils are taking it upon themselves to count on the Friday when there really is no valid reason for doing so apart from sheer incompetence and laziness. Jonathan gives several reasons for maintaining the status quo...

We want to know who won as soon as possible. Quite simply, once the polling stations have closed I want to know the result as soon as possible, and I imagine most activists and candidates who have been pounding the streets for a month feel the same way, as well as voters who have cast their ballots. And this argument holds on two levels. Firstly, on a constituency level, but more significantly on a national level: if the general election is going to be close, then it is possible that if lots of seats are not counting until Friday - especially marginals - then we will not know who is going to be Prime Minister, form the Government etc until Friday lunchtime.

It would be a backward step. In the digital 24-hour media age when we are used to getting news quicker than ever before, it would be a backward step to delay election counts. If anything, we should be seeking to persuade the few constituencies which historically count on a Friday to bring their counts forward to Thursday night.

Fewer people will be able to follow the results coming in. Sitting around the television into the early hours is an election night ritual for people across the land, many of whom do not perhaps follow politics as closely as some of us. But if there are fewer results to announce - and the potential of not getting a national result to boot - they are less likely to bother tuning in and when the remaining constituencies declare and the national result becomes apparent on the Friday, anyone at work is not going to be able to witness the climax of the electoral process.

The TV coverage of the election will suffer. The outside broadcasts (OBs) at counts up and down the country have provided many a memorable moment over they years, and they bring the results to life. However, the reason why broadcasters are able to provide such a variety of OBs is that there is no other call on the satellite trucks and outside broadcast units during the night. If there were an increasing number of counts on Friday during the day, fewer of them would have cameras present, thereby reducing the ability of the broadcasters to give full coverage of the results.

It's a tradition, dammit. The traditional British way of doing elections is to have people come out to vote and then count the ballot papers immediately afterwards. It's how we do it and what we're used to.

Threats to the integrity of the ballot. Security is a less important concern, but worth a mention all the same - I am just a little uncomfortable about increasing millions of ballot papers being left overnight before being counted.

I am more than a little uncomfortable. Anyway, Jonathan has set up a Facebook Group which I would urge you to join if you, like me, wish the current arrangements to remain in place.

UPDATE: Listen to Jonathan Isaby talk about the issue on Radio 4 HERE.


Mark Reckons said...

I blogged about this myself this morning.

Whilst I would prefer to see the overnight counts stay I realise I am in a small minority of people who actually stay up to watch them. I accept there are arguments in favour of moving the count as well as keeping them as you say Iain but I would rather the councils made the decisions about what is best rather than bow to pressure from politicos like me and you who have an emotional tie to the existing setup.

David Anthony said...

Yet another step in the erosion of true democracy in this country.

Take all the drama, excitement and anticipation out of elections and turn them into mere formalities for the civil service minions.


Bring on: open primaries, mandatory Thursday night counts, recall elections, elected second-tier, return to cabinet government or install a true executive function and yes, adequate pay for MPs.

Save Thursday nights.. politics is more than mere process and administration.

killemallletgodsortemout said...

Oh, how awfully un-PC, Iain.

Robin Day holding a cigar!

The zealots will come for you. Lucky you.

trevorsden said...

The Local Govt automaton who has said they will only start counting on Friday is a typical jobsworth moron.

America gets their results in minutes and I suggest France and Germany are not much different but here in Britain we have cretins running councils who do not give a shit.

Welcome to the 21st century world of British local government

bewick said...

Totally agree. In my day as a senior local govt officer Returning Officers did not receive a very generous addition to their salary for running elections every few years. They do now!
In my day the Police collected and transported the ballot boxes to the count. No chance of the electoral fraud which has appeared in recent years (particularly via the now universal postal voting) and appears to have been imported from Asia where it is common. (not being racist - just stating fact).
Given that most presiding officers and poll clerks and counting staff are LG employees who receive fees in addition to their normal salary for the day might this proposal be a money-saving exercise?

Frugal Dougal said...

Another possible reason: given that the Conservatives may well be forming the next government, unions wish to exert as much pressure as possible on them from the very start.

And I too am worried about the integrity of the ballot.

Philipa said...

Yes I think votes should be counted as soon as, therefore thursday it should remain.

Keldorne said...

There's a seventh reason - to avoid subjecting the UK's markets and currency to an unnecessary day of instability.

Elections can do funny things to these, and having the uncertainty over as quickly as possible is A Good Thing.

Paul Halsall said...

Aren't most councils run by Tories these days?

David said...

Counting on Friday was the proposal, or certainly the strong drift, from the Returning Officers for the Scottish and Welsh devolved elections in 2007 - citing amongst other factors the difficulty of verifying postal votes.

They were leant on very hard by the parties and the party leaders and duly retreated. If Cameron and Clegg can bounce (we'll see) Brown into a TV debate then they certainly can bounce the RO into counting at the proper time.

trevorsden said...

PS -- and off topic

"President Obama has been accused by some economists of making the same mistakes policymakers in the US made in the Great Depression, which followed the Wall Street crash of 1929"

Well presumably the same applies to Brown and labour.

"the White House's plans to pour hundreds of billions of dollars of cash into the economy will undermine it in the long run. They say that by employing deficit spending and increased state intervention President Obama will ultimately hamper the long-term growth potential"

Well this is precisely the accusation against Brown.

Seems that Nobel laureates are dissing Browns policies

Ian Thorpe said...

We remember with relish the schadenfreude we all experienced as seat after Tory seat fell in 1997. Who would be cruel enough to deprive us of the same pererse pleasure as we watch Labour wiped out in 2010?

Margaret said...

Even if one doesn't stay up for the night, it is good to be woken by the radio alarm with the state of play all but complete.

(Guess who has decided that she doesn't have enough stamina to sit up any more!)

Koba said...

I love the late night results and I find it very exciting.
The programmes do make it feel like I'm participating in democracy especially after having cast my vote only a few hours before.

Fernando said...

Iain, learn a little patience. I remember the elections in the 1950s and 1960s. The results trickled in and the trend slowly unfurled. Labour started well as the city results were declared and the next day the Tories caught up as the rural constituencies were counted. There was time to savour the individual results. We didn’t just have excitement for a night but for a couple of days. 1964 was a classic: what tension, the ebb and flow of fortunes. Now, it’s all wham/bang and difficult to concentrate on one result before the next few come along. It’s like comparing a good test match to 20/20.

Anonymous said...

Voting should take place on Friday night through to Saturday afternoon, followed by immediate counting. Then everyone has plenty of spare time to vote, and everyone is free to stay up all night as the count takes place, with the national being called at about midnight. Much better entertainment than Britain's Got Talent.

Scrobs... said...

Well of course, they want to be able to get the next day's post/deliveries with all those last minute (nulab) postal votes!

Can't do that on the Thursday evening can you - just nobody around then!

David Boothroyd said...

The reason for the delay in election counts is the new security in checking postal votes - the new checks being called for by the Conservatives, if I remember right.

Counting overnight is a relatively modern decision, encouraged by televised election nights. Did you know that as recently as 1974, a quarter of all constituencies did not count until the second day?

Charles said...

An important point is the symbolic effect of the losing PM being bundled out of No10 as soon as possible (and by the backdoor, in a charming tradition I might add).

It's good to remind politicans once in a while at whose pleasure they serve - and who are these functionaries who think they can take that away from us in the name of "efficency"

Francis said...

I think we should also have a Number 10 petition about this.

Does anyone feel like organising one?

houndtang said...

The result of the French Presidential election was declared within about an hour of the polls closing. The London Mayoral election result wasn't known until late on the Friday night. What gwans?

Jabba the Cat said...

Only, and most important, reason for not letting ballot boxes sit overnight awaiting counting is that they are very likely to be Mugabe'd.

Anonymous said...

Trevorsden: America gets their results in minutes ...

Oh, for crying out loud, America gets exit polls in minutes, the results take weeks. If the election result is clear cut then fine all sides accept it, but if not it takes a lot longer - where were you in 2000? And if you don't remember that then how about 7 months to sort out the senate election in Minnesota?

So long as you are required to collect, sort and count individual ballot papers (and I look forward to the squeals on this site if electronic voting was proposed) it's going to take a good length of time to declare a result.

There's a genuine argument to be had on this issue, but it seems distinctly second order to me. You may be used to Spring elections, long late evenings and ballot boxes being flown from remote islands by helicopter to ensure a rapid return, but none of these are fundamental, and all are recent - and Ted Heath was hardly bundled out the back door the day after the Feb 74 election - he was able to hang on for a whole weekend trying to negotiate a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe (as he was entitled to do). As I've said on another thread, we are electing a parliament not staging a game show.

Cynic said...

The problem is that, after 12 years of labour, who cares? We just want to see them go and anyone - yes almost anyone get in

True Belle said...

The atmosphere of sweat and tears as the the ballot papers get counted is so tense and memorable. You either have to be there or on the edge of your sofa watching the drama unfold!

Leave things as they are- don't meddle when it isn't necessary.

On the other hand it could be a case of spite and malice from local gov officers who object to the idea of their pensions being tampered with- I expect there is a plot ahead!

Elliot Kane said...

I'd say the possibility of corruption was the main and over-riding reason, honestly. The abuse of postal ballots is bad enough as is, but leaving the boxes untended overnight allows for possibilities a thousand times worse.

There are too many people in politics who would stoop to any lengths to win and they need to be prevented at all costs from doing so.

Richard Calhoun said...

Oops! You guys not as important as you thought you were.

What about localism??

What about saving taxpayers money?

Paul Canning said...

How can you have this and Easyjet councils?

You do realise this amounts to yet another Tory spending commitment? How many is that now? Luckily for you Labour seems to not be keeping score ...

And I'm sure someone will shout 'efficiency savings will cover costs!' but we all know what Yes Minister had to say about that ...

Anonymous said...

Obviously now all the councils are Tory they're going to be high on incompetence and low on service.

Sometimes I wonder if anybody remembers the hellhole that this country was before Blair and Brown rebuilt it.

Actually, re Friday counts, after the horrors of Harlow last time round nobody should be put in that position ever again. I swear poor Bill Rammell aged 5 years in one night.

Paul said...

"America gets their results in minutes" If you actually look at the facts that is not true. The networks call states in minutes. But those are estimates only and they have often got it spectacularly wrong, as in 2000 when, far from the results being available "in minutes" the official result wasn't confirmed until over a month later and it took about a year before a load of academics sat down and properly counted all the votes in Florida.

Even in the last US election in November 2008, several states did not declare their results until well into the Friday or several days later.

The contention that a few (and it is only a few) councils are considering a Friday count because of "laziness and incompetance" doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. The council staff counting at night often get up at 6am the previous morning to staff the polling stations. So staff freshness and alertness, and therefore an accurate count, is served by a Friday morning count. Also, it saves money because the council pays less overtime/unsocial working pay (saving money is usually a concern which Tories like yourself, Iain, support, is it not?). Also, in many cases a morning count is needed these days in order to properly scrutinise postal ballots handed in on polling day.

Why should accuracy and cost be ignored just to give a cheap thrill to a load of overgrown annally retentive schoolboy political nerds?

By the way about 10% of councils have done Friday morning counts for donkeys years. Specifically: The whole of Northern Ireland, Cumbria, Highlands and Islands, Cornwall (certainly North and until the last election St Ives also).

As for it being "traditional" to have night counts, that is nonsense. In Gladstone's time the count went on for days.

Disco Biscuit said...

Quite apart from anything else, why is it that unelected council bureaucrats are taking it upon themselves to delay the return of elected Members of Parliament and a new Government?

They should get on with the job instead of whingeing about the hours. If you don't like it, don't take the job.

Anonymous said...

The decision when to hold a count is down to the Local Authority Electoral Returning Officer.

Fo obvious reason they are independent of politicians and therefore cannot be ordered to hold the count on the election night by local councillors, MP or the local or national parties.

As a local Councillor I shall urge we retain the election night count. However if the Returning Officer choses to change to Friday, there is nothing that I can do to prevent it.

Of course if the Local Elections are on the same day that will further complicate the picture.