So it is that time again – elections. OK, these are elections we should not be having as they are European ones and were supposed to have left the EU nearly 2 months ago but that that is beside the point.
Already Twitter is starting with the “they will rig the election by fiddling with the ballots and changing the result” crap.
Now I am not going to claim that elections are not or will not be rigged – they can be and will be. I am simply going to say that however it is done the rigging will not be and cannot be done using the ballots and the counting itself.
The vast majority of people have never been near an election count and have all sorts of funny ideas about how it happens – they imagine counting machines that can be rigged and secret rooms where people with erasers work to alter the honest marks made by the naive voters. I had similar if not such extreme ideas before I became privileged to attend a number of counts and see for myself how they are done – and realise that the heart of true democracy beats strong and healthy in British election counts.
I am going to explain what happens – how simple and basic things are kept – and that it makes large scale fraud or fiddling impossible.
Starting at the polling stations – each person who arrives to vote is checked against the list of registered voters who can use that station. If they appear on that list they are handed a ballot paper. The number of ballot papers handed out is recorded – and the names of the people handed one are crossed off the list. If someone makes a mistake on their paper or wishes to change it they must hand it back to get a fresh one – and this will be recorded also. The ballots go into boxes or bags – that are locked and are not accessible to the people in the polling stations. As each box or bag is filled it is placed in a secure area.
At 10 pm when the polls close the bags, lists of voters, and records of slip numbers are transported to the counting station – and the journey times are known and monitored. Each bag is recorded on arrival.
Then the verification and counting. This is done in a huge room – local sports hall maybe – by teams of people sitting behind double width tables. Behind these are the official staff who organise the count. On the other side of the double tables are the candidates, the party representatives, and independent observers including press (but no cameras) – all of whom will have had to give their name in advance – only people on the list are allowed in the room. First off is the verification count. Each team is given a box – the ballots are removed and given in piles to the counters who count them into piles of ten then use elastic bands or paper clips on each 10 ballots. The groups of ten are then counted into 10s to make 100s. The ballots are either kept folded or placed upside down at this point – the only interest at this stage is how many ballots there are. The number in each box is counted – then compared with the number of ballot slips given out while that box was in use. If 200 slips were given out at the station there should be between 198 and 200 slips in the box (it is accepted a small number of ballots are not posted). The total number for each polling station is then compared against the number of voters shown as given a slip. Each person counting will be observed by party representatives who will be making their own count – but who CANNOT COME INTO CONTACT WITH THE BALLOT PAPERS OR COUNTERS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. If a counter drops a slip – or band – or paperclip the observer will draw the attention of the official staff who will pick up the fallen item – neither the counter nor the observer will pick it up and there will be absolutely no possible contact between those behind the tables and those in front. The box is then marked with the number of slips it contains and returned to the secure area.
This process may be repeated with each box being given to another team who do the same thing again – count the number of slips in the box.
Once the ballot numbers have been verified – that the number given out corresponds very closely to the number posted – and most certainly does not exceed it – then counting can begin. Again each team is given a box which is opened and the slips removed – and this time the slips are opened face up and placed in piles according to the candidate or party chosen. These piles are then counted into tens, clipped or banded. The banded tens may then be further grouped into 10s to make 100s. While the counters are making piles the party observers will be counting with them recording onto paper what they see the counter doing. Once the box has been finished the totals of each pile are added up – each candidate and ruined ballots. Those numbers must equal the number from the verification count. The ruined ballots from that box will then be handed to the person in charge of the count who will ask for representatives from all parties/candidates. Each ruined ballot will be shown to the representatives and the reason for it being considered ruined explained and the representatives will be asked to confirm it as ruined. This will also happen with any questionable ballots. For instance, say there is a paper where the person has drawn a ring around a name rather than ticking the box. The electoral officer may decide that is who the person was voted for and will show the slip to representatives of all candidates/parties and ask if they agree – if they do agree that slip will be added to the total for the name ringed.
So long as the number of votes and ruined ballots total the number of slips recorded for the box the numbers will be recorded and the team move onto the next box. Each ballot will have been seen by the count staff monitoring the team, the person counting, and observers from candidates and parties – as well as being visible to the people counting on either side. The people counting are observed the whole time by both paid staff and official party/candidate observers. If they were to try changing a mark from one candidate to another they would be seen, if they tried putting a ballot on the wrong pile they would be seen. If they try replacing a ballot with a different one they will be seen. They will be seen by several people including a representative of the candidate they are trying to change the vote from. If the numbers counted for the votes do not add up to the number of slips recorded in that box then they are all recounted.
Once all the boxes are done the totals from them all are added up – and the candidates informed of the official result. The candidates do probably already know this as they have had their own observers also counting. If the result is clear it will then be declared. The official declaration is filmed and photographed by the press – it is the time cameras are allowed in. If the result is very close the candidates may ask for a recount – and the whole process is done again with each box going to a different team each time (verification and count).
The majority of polling station staff and people doing the counting are ordinary people volunteering their time. There are expenses paid but it is not wages – and it is done entirely by choice. The people doing this cannot hold membership of any political party and there are other restrictions. They are not employed by the council or government – they are doing it because it is a matter of civic pride and a belief in democracy. They are choosing to spend a night – possibly over 12 hours – donating their time to do a very simple basic repetitive task of putting pieces of paper into piles of ten. The boxes and slips are securely protected every step of the way – as in there are people who in the event of a fire alarm MUST remain with the boxes while the boxes are evacuated (or not). Those people will burn with the slips. Money is not protected so closely. They do it by choice. There are also independent employed security – who can see what is happening in the room and will know that it is honest.
So again briefly
- A slip is only given to a person on the list eligible to vote at that station
- The number of slips given out for each box is recorded
- The boxes are locked and can only be unlocked at the counting centre
- The journey times of boxes are recorded and known
- The number of slips in a box must check the number given out for that box
- Each slip will be counted at a minimum by 2 different teams but probably more
- Each time a slip is counted it is observed by representatives of candidates
- Counting is done by hand into piles of 10
- Any ruined or unclear slip has to be shown to all candidate representatives and they agree on its designation.
- The people doing the actual counting are not employed by the council or government.
So please do not worry about fraud or vote rigging at the counting centres – where ever else it is happening in a room of around 200 people half of whom are volunteers and a significant number of whom are there to observe for the candidates the only way it can happen is for all those people to agree to it advance and work together and keep their mouths shut for evermore. An honest politician is more likely than that happening.