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The Count

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jonnyelectedI’ve been quiet here lately. March is generally my busiest month academically, in April I had several commitments in the United States, and when I returned to England at the end of April, I had the end of the year grading crunch (which I finished up just yesterday) and another week long morning run on BBC Radio Devon. Most weekends in England are occupied with my daughter, who craves constant interaction (while I am utterly unproductive during those weekends, they are my favorite times ever). When work backs up, sadly, my pattern has been that LGM is one of the first things to go. That, and beer.

A relatively new commitment is my activity with the Labour Party. I’m a member (they give you a card and everything) and I guess what you’d call an activist. During the run-in to the local and European elections held last week, I wanted to get involved in and familiarise myself with as many aspects of the operation as possible. This included stuffing envelopes, phone canvassing, leafletting, knocking on doors talking to people, getting out (our) vote on election day, and meeting a lot of very cool, like minded people. In the coming year, there will be much more of all of this, plus data analysis. I am impressed with the sophistication of the operation, but there are areas we can improve upon, and locally I’ll be making an evidence-based contribution in this area.

Also, I had the opportunity to serve as a count agent for Labour on election night and the next day during the formal count. Jonny Morris (pictured), an incumbent city councillor running for re-election, put my name forward. While not knowing what the hell it was, it sure sounded cool. I researched what the Electoral Commission has to say about agents’ rights and responsibilities, spoke to Jonny as well as two other Labour councillors, and following a fun, exhausting day working cleverly targeted GOTV in two of our target wards (from 05:00 to when polls closed at 22:00) went down to the Guild Hall in the center of town to do this thing.

The next 18 hours or so happened in two stages (separated by a few hours of glorious sleep). The 19 contested wards for Plymouth’s City Council were spread across three tables per ward in three different halls.  After the polls closed, the ballot boxes started to arrive. That night, the city’s job was to verify that the number of ballots coming out of a box equalled those that went in, and to stack them into groups of 25. My job was to gather data, both in terms of the overall picture in the ward, and ideally, by polling station. The ward I was responsible for had eight polling stations, and I was able to obtain a sample from six. This is the only time we can get this level of data as once the ballots are stacked, this information is lost for all eternity (the city keeps track of aggregate numbers by ward of course, and that’s the public record, but does not distinguish within the ward). This will be useful in the coming year.

There were three city counters per table, so I had nine in total to observe, by an large by myself. Our candidate was there for a couple hours but he was understandably exhausted considering all the effort he had been putting in, but at least I had three gregarious cool relaxed laid back UKIPers to keep me company. Having precisely zero experience with this, I had to devise a sampling method on the fly. The city was not obligated to show me the vote choice, just the ballot papers (as officially, my job was to observe for Labour that the count coming out of a ballot box was equal to the count that went in). Some counters were more cooperative than others; one entire table of three decided they would bundle the ballots face down, so I could not see a thing. Others would do so in such a way that I could see the bottom two candidates but not the top three, or the top two but not the bottom three; either were worthless in terms of obtaining a reliable sample. I did manage to find two or three who were transparent in their count such that I was able to obtain a decent enough sample. At one point, consulting with the candidate, I was able to say “this is where you are. these are good numbers. I trust these numbers”. I didn’t know it until that moment, but I always wanted to say that to a candidate.

There was one flaw in my sampling, and that’s the postal vote, which I think worked out to about 40% of the total turnout. Those were piled into their stacks of 25 first, and it proved very difficult to devise a reliable sampling technique for those.  I’ve retained everything of course and I’m looking at my postal numbers versus my ballot box numbers to see if there’s anything I can learn.

I was at the Guildhall from a little after the polls closed at 10pm until 1:30am. I was back at 12:30pm the next day for “The Count”, where the city takes those stacks of 25 and distributes them by party (into stacks of 25 that are paper clipped, then bundles of 100).  My job here, again, is twofold. I’m to ensure that no Labour votes end up in the piles of the opposition. In the ward I was responsible for, we had five candidates: Labour, the Conservatives, an independent candidate who runs every election, the “Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts”, and, of course, UKIP. Meaning, five piles. Note, no Green candidate; and the Greens did quite well in a couple of the wards. Also, no Liberal Democrat, who stood candidates in merely four of the 19 wards. The only discrepancy I noted was twice one counter placed a Conservative ballot in the Labour pile. There was no Tory count agent present at the moment, only their candidate, who wasn’t observing this table. It’s not my job to do the Conservative’s job for them, so I said nothing. In each case, however, the counter caught his error before adding another ballot to the Labour pile, so in the end the Conservatives were correctly credited with those two votes, and the shaky foundations of the democracy held for another day.

The second job was to get an overall count of where we stand, and this is where the drama enters the narrative. We were well organised, with the candidate watching one table, me a second, and an additional Labour observer (who had done this many times before and was well on top of things) the third. We aggregated notes, and had confidence. My sample from the night before, 401 ballots out of ultimately nearly 4000 cast, indicated that it could be close, but we’d win and UKIP would finish second.

I was confident, that is, until I caught sight of the UKIP tally sheet, which credited them with over 200 more votes than we estimated. That our ward was called for a recount did not add to our confidence. I found solace in my numbers from the night before, and knew I had a much better handle on things than they had, but during the first of two recounts for the ward, I worked out that we had underestimated the UKIP vote. Telling the candidate that we didn’t have them where we thought was not my favorite part of the day / week / month. The situation was tense, and when we learned that turnout in the ward was 40%, we weren’t sure what to make of it. 40% is above average for local elections here, so did it mean that we got the boost higher turnouts usually afford Labour? Or did UKIP mobilize an atypical number of non-voters to their extreme right wing cause?

The second recount assuaged any concerns and the tension vanished. We had won. By 96 votes. The emotion was tangible. My estimates from the night before had the ward 34% Labour, 28% UKIP, 25% Conservative, 11% Independent, 1.5% TUSC. Again, those were without the postal ballots. The final result was 34.6% Labour, 32.2% UKIP, 23.4% Conservatives, 8.8% Independent, and 0.8% TUSC. My error was Labour -0.6%, UKIP -4.2%, Conservative +1.6%, Independent +2.2%, TUSC +0.7%.

Not too bad for one guy devising a sampling method on the fly, observing three tables, with nine city counters cooperating to varying degrees, while rejecting my estimates of the postal votes as being unreliable.

After that, we all gathered in the ballroom upstairs to watch the declarations of each ward (the source of the photo above), which culminated in re-elected Labour councillor Bill Stevens’ rousing speech that went viral on twitter here in the UK, and met with a decidedly impolite reaction from the UKIP contingent. Then, of course, it was off to the nearest bar, where every party, Labour, the Tories, Greens, TUSCs, even the odd Liberal Democrat were all in attendance, proudly wearing their rosettes and respective party bling.

Except UKIP. Even though they had elected three councillors to Plymouth City Council, they stayed away.

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  • When I stood for election, I always enjoyed the count, especially all the candidates standing about drinking beer and kibitzing the election-night TV.

  • Warren Terra

    The only discrepancy I noted was twice one counter placed a Conservative ballot in the Labour pile. There was no Tory count agent present at the moment, only their candidate, who wasn’t observing this table. It’s not my job to do the Conservative’s job for them, so I said nothing.

    I understand your sympathies are with Labour, but surely your duty is to the integrity of the process and to Democracy. I am appalled that you were ready to stand by and say nothing, merely because the error was in your favor.

    • Ronan

      “your duty is to the integrity of the process and to Democracy”

      No it’s not. He was there working for Labour party not as a neutral observer.

      • Dave Brockington

        Precisely. WT: are you serious? I was there not as an academic nor as an impartial observer. I was there as an accredited agent for my candidate. My “duty”, such as it was, was to him and the party I represented. Do you honestly believe that the UKIP candidate or agent would have returned the favor? As it is, my impression is the undoubtedly underpaid staffers working for the city did an excellent, thorough, and professional job. It’s their job to get it right. We won one ward, again against UKIP, by 11 votes. There was no recount as there was no UKIP agent on hand to request a recount, but I’m confident that the result would have held given the dedication the city counters had to getting it right.

        • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

          Do you honestly believe that the UKIP candidate or agent would have returned the favor?

          Please, sir, can I stop rolling on the floor in fits of helpless laughter now?

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          I think Warren was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. it’s hard to be sure in this light though

          • Dave Brockington

            His use of “appalled” might have been the tell if he was being sarcastic, but if so, it was still damned subtle.

            • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

              He has perhaps the so-British sense of irony a little too thoroughly mastered?

              (*In my best Herr Flick voice*)

            • jim, some guy in iowa

              WT using a capital D for democracy is what I’m going by

            • Warren Terra

              I’m not kidding in the slightest, in this instance. As I see it, Dave was there to ensure fairness, and in particular to protect the interest of his party – but fairness first, not party first.

              I’m genuinely uncertain now where Dave would draw the line. Given he opportunity, should he have altered the count himself? Conspired with other observers or with the count workers to do so? Kept mum as a count worker systematically and obviously deliberately deranged the count, so long as it was consistent with his party’s interests? Maybe, seeing the count was going badly, Dave ought to have committed vandalism or even arson, and made a completed count impossible!

              Elsewhere in the comments, Lee Rudolph makes a comparison I think is useful, referring to “officers of the court”. A prosecuting or defending attorney is expected to be zealous in their client’s interests, but also to defend the integrity of the process.

              I’m really quite surprised that so many people in the comments have endorsed any position other than seeking a fair and honest count.

              • Dave Brockington

                The rules are clear: we can look, but not touch, so legally, most of what you propose is impossible. Several of your scenarios above are also quite fantastic, of course, and I suspect you were aware of this when you typed it out. My job in that context was to make sure we lost none of our votes, but that does not at all extend to ensuring that for the opposition. However, I was always shadowed by a Kipper, and occasionally representatives of the other parties, so the systematic deranged vote fraud by the city counter you propose would have been observed. Incidentally, had I seen that (and I hadn’t considered it as a possible scenario to be honest), I would have brought it up with senior party members to see how to proceed, but the way the entire thing is designed, I can’t see that being possible. Furthermore, it would have come out during one of the recounts. Any election close enough to be decided by the two votes momentarily mistakenly placed in our pile, had they remained there, would have gone to a recount, and they would have been corrected.

                And how far do we logically take the fairness and integrity principle? We have better data and significantly more volunteers working for us. Should we give all our data to UKIP and the Tories, and lend out our volunteers? The Conservatives have considerably more money than we do. Should we get some of that? I was vastly more organised on election night, so
                should I have shared my election night sample data so the Kippers and the Tories were on the same page as I about what to expect, in the spirit of all of us banding together to ensure a fair and precise outcome?

                Ultimately, as has been said before, I was representing the candidate and the Party. Not to break the law, not to commit fraud, that line is crystal clear, but to ensure we do the best that we can within the context of the law. Indeed, I’m a little disappointed in you that you would shrilly jump to these conclusions or even entertain that possibility about me. You’re better than that.

                • Warren Terra

                  I certainly engaged in some hyperbole – but that’s because I am genuinely uncertain where you stop once you have decided to endorse injustices so long as they’re convenient for your interests. I can’t imagine that if you found someone’s wallet in the street you would keep it, nor that you would ignore a distressed person in need of assistance, however inconvenient to you. And yet here you are, asserting your intention to retain unmerited and unjust advantages for your party so long as you don’t have to actually commit an overt act yourself.

                  Maybe it was a mistake to explore the realm of electoral malfeasance as I did; maybe it muddies the waters too much. But I really do believe that once you’ve started own the path of seizing improper advantage it becomes unclear where you will stop.

                  I’d really rather that your post had led to discussion on some other issues. Before I got to the part I quoted, my main response had been puzzlement and upset that some city workers were permitted to handle the ballots in a manner that seemed as described to resist proctoring (placing them face-down or bundling them so that individual ballots or ballot lines could not be examined). This seemed to me to be problematic, and requiring of reform – just not so much as an observer’s deliberately ignoring convenient errors.

                • Gareth Wilson

                  You saw an injustice, and ignored it because it benefited your side. So you can’t ever claim to be on the side of justice.

              • Ronan

                You cant divide out the role of ‘fairness’ and ‘in the interest to the party.’ The fairness is meant to be largely a result of self interest among the vote watchers. It is part self regulating.
                So obviously there’s a scale of wrongdoing in these situations, but two votes gone astray doesnt exist anywhere on the scale. (and I cant see how the system could function with that level of altruism – the entire incentive system would break down as it’s not meant to exist at that level of goodwill among the participants)
                If you see what I mean.
                This might be largely bullshit on my part, but it sounds right.

    • A citizen, absent other duty, should act as warren suggests. However the position Dave holds is by nature an adversarial one. He has no duty to help out his adversaries at all.

      Good taste requires that he avoid actively twirling his moustache, however.

      • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

        Right. You might as well ask the lawyer for the defense to help the prosecution with its summing up.

      • Lee Rudolph

        The positions defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys hold are by natural adversarial; yet attorneys are officers of the court, and as such have (at least in theory) certain obligations to “the integrity of the process”. Warren was, I suppose, applying some such analysis to the case in question (as would I have done before he got slapped in the face with a wet fish, showing me the error of my ways).

    • Scott has a mantra that “nobody cares about federalism.” The same goes for democracy, really. Nobody cares if the process is fair, as long as they win. And they can come up with all sorts of rationalizations to excuse bad behavior that they would not tolerate in others.

      • Dave Brockington

        Seriously, how is it “unfair” if everybody is playing by the same rules, with the same opportunities within the context of those rules?

        • Tom Servo

          Same rules, eh? Reminds me of that great quote “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

          • JBL

            Yes, but only because you’re a moron.

      • witless chum

        I think a lot more people care about democracy in the abstract than federalism.

        • MikeN

          Put me down in the mildly appalled column. I did inside scrutineering in elections in British Columbia for years, and on several occasions spoke up about votes wrongly being placed in my candidate’s pile (NDP); just as being an outside scrutineer I would provide information to the other party’s supporters about polling location and times.

          The primary loyalty should be to the democratic process, even if the favour was not returned by those ratbag Social Credit bastards.

          • dave brockington

            I should point out that the people I spoke to about my role all said the same thing regarding this eventuality, therefore it’s straight out of the party playbook. Which means it’s likewise safe to assume it’s how all the parties approach this issue. The only favours granted were a UKIPer confirmed my identification of the polling location source of a ballot box, and I did return that favour. Given for my ward alone, there were nine people on the front line for the city, with a couple of layers of supervision constantly on the scene, then the two recounts. I’m confident that even had those two votes managed to slip through, the foundations of democracy would have survived as they would have been caught and corrected.

            The question of observing systematic fraud in our favour is stickier, and one I hadn’t considered. My instinct would be to point it out, as the assumption is that those doing the counting are doing so in a fair, unbiased manner. Indeed, if that would come to light after the election, it would undermine the legitimacy of the election and office holder. I like to think that’s likewise the Party’s position on it. I’ll inquire as a hypothetical.

            But, in the end, my role, the role of the count agent for the Conservatives and the UKIPers was party first.

  • The Dark Avenger

    Yes, you were there as an agent for your party, but not for democracy itself. Good call.

  • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

    Do you think that UKIP have taken the Lib Dems’ place as the protest party and will fall back to earth when the general election comes around?

    Also, UKIP sound pretty charmless as a party – are they that way “in person”?

  • Dave Brockington

    I should have a post co-authored with a researcher from the Electoral Reform Society within a day or two on projecting from the locals, but I’ll succinctly repeat my takeaway from my interview on Radio Devon on Tuesday: I think they’ll recede. Voters use different decision rules for different elections. Good evidence of this is comparing the locals with the EUP elections, held on the same day in the UK. UKIP received 17% (or so) in the locals, 27.5% in the EUP. Now, not every authority in the UK had local elections on Thursday, while the entire UK voted for EUP, so they’re not exactly comparable, but I doubt that UKIP is over ten points stronger in areas where no local authority elections took place.

    In person, those I’ve met, they’re not nice people. There was a confrontation between the Kippers and my candidate Thursday night which was entirely unnecessary (his wife called him on the phone to say she’d be late on the train down from London; the phone is strictly forbidden in the count room but they didn’t need to immediately get in his face about it), and there was an episode when three of us were out doing GOTV and a car drove by with two sketchy looking white males inside, and they deployed a quite colourful string of monosyllabic words in our direction. Seriously, they only used single syllable words, and they kept coming back to a certain “C” word.

    • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

      I thought it was interesting that UKIP had actually lost some vote share in the council elections, although the media in Britain rather carefully ignored that in favor of the more dramatic “earthquake” narrative. I was also amused by Nick Griffin’s sad lament that people voted for UKIP’s racist policies, but not for the BNP’s!

      • Sockie the Sock Puppet

        Isn’t the problem for Griffin that his voters can only vote once per election, and this year they’re voting for UKIP instead of the BNP?

        Seems to me Griffin’s best move — other than the dying in the fire thing — would be to merge his BNP into the UKIP and then take over the UKIP from within.

        • Matthew Heath

          UKIP have a policy of chucking out ex BNP (or EDL or NF) members. They claim the fact that they are the only big party to do so makes them very not-racist. I’ve heard it compared to seeing mousetraps in a restaurant; it’s good they dealing with their problem but I’m still not going to eat there.

        • bexley

          Farrage and UKIP are the face of marginally respectable xenophobia in this country – he wouldn’t want such a merger. Look at his decision not to ally with the Front National in the European Parliament.

          • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

            From what I have seen and heard, UKIP have, in fact, actively tried to get BNP voters – and have succeeded in many areas. They tend to be very quiet about it and defenestrate any of their new comrades who publicly embarrass the movement, but the fact is that their party now has a significant, if not majority, BNP presence.

            • bexley

              Oh absolutely. But they want the BP rank and file voting for them rather than the leadership joining up so they can maintain plausible deniability.

            • bexley

              Submitted before finishing. I meant to add:
              That leaves no place for Griffin.

  • Heh. I took part in the count for the 2001 general elections in Plymouth, as an observer for the then Socialist Alliance. Looks like it hasn’t changed much in the meantime.

    • Dave Brockington

      It was quite old school to this American, entirely done by hand, most of the X’s on the ballot papers written in pencil. But the job the city people did was thorough, efficient, and professional, and as you know, there’s enough observation by the various parties to ensure a legitimate outcome.

  • J R in WV

    It was interesting to read a description of the counting process/procedure compared to the newer methods here in rural W. Va. I think all the counties now have one brand or another of computerized voting machinery, all required to have an audit trail of the voter’s intended votes, our county’s machines print a kind of cash register tape once the voter presses the icon for “vote my choices”.

    As a youth I helped out the local newspaper report on voter totals. We had reporters at the courthouse up the street, and big boards with candidates down one side and precincts across the top to enter totals as the counts were made at the courthouse. I used a big adding machine where you punched in numbers, hit the ‘+’ button and pulled a big lever to actually perform the mechanical addition to the total. It too ran a tape of the numbers keyed in and the running total.

    Back then the count went on all night. Much caffinated beverages were drunk, although I never saw it I’m certain there was a certain amount of brown liquor drunk in the halls of the Courthouse, especially as the counts neared the completion.

    Now the numbers are totalled automatically. The courthouses were all empty on the 11 pm newscasts, with no one but the reporters on camera around in the brightly lit halls. It was kind of sad, really, the change from a tumult running all night to a simple totalization of all the machine counts by a server. Cold and dispassionate compared to the old tumult of counts and totals being read off and added up and entered into the log books.

    Of course the good old days also included lots of shady vote rigging methods. If they could get a good ballot ahead of time, they could mark it the way their slate wanted it, and they give it to a voter to use, and bring his unmarked ballot out to the poll workers outside the precinct to be marked and cast by the next guy, all for $20 or so, paid when the unmarked ballot was provided after the pre-marked ballot was cast… risky business with the Feds involved.

    In our county, where machine politics between two factions of the ruling Democratic party ruled for a long time, many office holders have pled guilty or been convicted in federal court for election tampering. Part of any plea deal is the obligation to never run for office again. Without that many would run again and, amazingly, win election again! I most emphatically do NOT miss that part of the old days!

    Now we tell the poll workers our name and address, to verify that we’re at the correct polling place (instead of the one across the gym floor) and they walk with us to a machine, where they plug in their supervisor gadget and initialize the machine. We can see votes printed out on the tape, which can be used for recounts, as we cast the selected votes. No onerous Voter ID required. Last election they did ask for voter’s registration cards as many people had new precincts, which were combined into larger numbers of voters. They needed far fewer workers with the machine vote than with the paper trail.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    First-past-the-post really sucks….especially in multiparty elections.

    • Dread Hierarch Scrotum-Piranha

      Bear in mind that the Lib Dems must be going down on their knees and thanking God that they didn’t, in fact, get some form of proportional representation – because their ability to field any sort of respectable number of MPs after the next election is now heavily dependent on being able to use the current system and defend a number of local strong-points.

      • Warren Terra

        On the other hand, if they had gotten Proportional Representation enacted it would have meant they hadn’t sold out everything they professed to believe in and gotten nothing in return. That difference might be enough to change the conception people have of them – after all, at present they’re not only unprincipled craven liars, they’re also gutless ineffectual wonders who got nothing in return. With PR they’d at least be moderately effective unprincipled craven liars.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          More or less my view of the Lib Dems…but not exactly a defense of first-past-the-post (I’m not sure whether either of you intended it as such). And PR is hardly the only solution. A system of STV or even an old fashioned run-off election system would be a huge improvement.

  • Appleblossom

    Thank you for the volunteering you did.

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