Democracy in Action

I attended my first election counting on Thursday evening. If you’ve never been to one, it’s a sight to see. Utterly simple yet incredibly effective; a community coming together to provide one of the most important public goods that we know of: democratic government.

There must have been close to 200 people in the hall that night: counters, the returning officer, candidates and observers, all working through the night. The counters are (usually) employees of the local council, whilst the candidates and observers are volunteers from all of the parties contesting seats, watching all of the counting to ensure that everything is above board and that no errors are made, either deliberately or by accident. I’d been doing a little campaigning for the Conservative candidate in my local ward, so was there to help on that basis.

After the locked ballot boxes are brought out and opened, first the number of votes are counted and verified, confirming that the same number of votes are present as were cast at the polling station. After this has been done, the votes themselves are counted, placed into piles according to who they were cast for and bundled into bundles of 25, 50 or 100. The same thing then takes place with the postal votes, which until that point have been kept under lock and key. Everything is checked and rechecked to ensure that no mistakes are made. Multiple wards will be being counted at once, across the hall, which is why so many people are needed.

When a ward has been fully counted, the returning officer calls up the candidates (and any local party agent) and informs them of the result. If the votes are close, a recount will usually be called and the process begins again. Once it’s clear that the votes have been counted accurately, the returning officer will announce the results, reading out the number of votes won by each candidate, in the order they were on the ballot paper and the winner is declared. This goes on through the night, until all the wards have been declared.

All of this takes place utterly openly, transparently, under the eyes of representatives of all the parties contesting seats. One needs no special education, no training in statistics and no special privileges to either count the votes or to be able to see that the votes are being counted correctly; it is a process in which anyone can take part in assuring its accuracy. Indeed, it draws its strength from the participation of people from across the community. I have never been a fan of electronic voting, and what I saw that night confirmed my opposition: how anyone, supposedly in the name of democracy and the people, could favour a method which is unverifiable and incomprehensible to an ordinary person, totally reliant on a small number of individuals for its surety and devastatingly vulnerable to single points of failure is utterly beyond me.

As inspiring as the process itself was the attitude of all those in the hall. Despite the rivalries, despite the weeks of campaigning beforehand, the occasional dirty tricks and underhanded tactics (I’ll point no fingers) on the campaign trail; despite the incredibly tight nature of some races and the severe personal disappointments, the atmosphere was universally civil, polite and good natured. It was a community coming together to deliver democracy, rising above party politics even whilst taking part in the quintessential political activity. At a time when the public face of politics can so often be one of vitriol, bile and hatred, this was a reassuring reaffirmation of people’s belief in each other, in community and in democracy. And what I saw in that hall was just one small part of a process taking up and down the country, in town halls, church halls, roller parks and school gyms, people working together for the future of our country.

Whatever our political persuasions, whatever policies we personally believe in, we still have in this country a democratic process that we can all be proud of. And that’s something to celebrate.