07 September 2009

Save Election Night!

I find myself signing up to a strange Coalition, involving Tom Harris (whose post drew my attention to the issue), Jonathan Isaby of ConservativeHome and LibDem Blogger Mark Pack: the classic Thursday night Election count is under threat, as a raft of local Councils have opted to switch to Friday morning.

Now, logistical concerns, and the mental and physical fitness of the counting staff have been raised. Of course, it's quite unfair to expect a Returning Officer to work a 24-hour day (or longer), but it strikes me that local Councils are rarely understaffed and enough administrative and authoritative cover could be provided by any Democratic Services Department to keep things ticking over during the day and have the RO do what he needs to at night. And the idea that working nights makes you crap at your job may or may not be echoed by night-shift workers across the UK, but it's a bit of a slap in the face to them. Lots of people are perfectly capable of doing a night-shift. Many of those people have no choice but to go nocturnal.

So while they're reasonable concerns to raise, I don't buy them. Particularly when the arguments put by this Coalition of the Unwilling are as appealing as they are.

The Coalition points out that we want to know who won as soon as possible, and you probably have to go to the 1970s to find an election where the identity of the next PM was not known by the time people were sitting down to breakfast (or coming home, if they're on nights), and even then, that was more down to the closeness of the result than any lack of logistical advances. So here's something to bear in mind: in the 1997 Election, which saw one of the most convincing victories in electoral history, Labour had their overall majority confirmed by official results at around 3:30 a.m - five and a half hours after polls had closed. Under these proposals, that would move back to any time between 2:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. (if you factor in a lunch break as well) - later than even the narrow results of the 1970s!

And there's another factor: combined polling days. It's often common when there are two elections on the same day (as there have been on the last three UK election days and all Holyrood polling days) to leave the counting for the local Councils until the following day. Push the General Election count back to Friday, and those counters then potentially have to come in on Saturday (or defer the count until Monday) for the Councils. That's not on: particularly for Councils with all-out elections or where the result could change who runs the Council. The same administrators who are complaining of election nights now will be rightly complaining that they've missed out on extra time to prepare for new Leadership.

And in terms of preparing for a new UK administration, let's say that you find out who's won reasonably quickly. We're now used to the announcements as to who's filling the key Cabinet positions that day. If counts move en masse to Friday, it won't be until Saturday - and perhaps later than that - that we know, for example, who'll be entering 11 Downing Street. And that has a knock-on effect. A working Friday, filled with uncertainty about who'll be calling the shots, will lead to one ugly hoor of a day on the markets, with the FTSE bouncing up and down with every marginal seat, every shock result, every smaller (or larger) than expected swing. Quite frankly, we can do without that.

Where I dissent is the idea that TV coverage will merely shift to Friday morning. Of course it won't. They'll still have something on Thursday night: bloody exit polls. Remember 1992? My parents went to bed thinking as many of us did that Neil Kinnock was going to be leading the largest Party in the Commons, and probably forming the Government. The next morning, my Dad was weeping into his corn flakes. Move counts back and they'll just do what they do in the US (and what they did last week in Japan), and have whole results shows devoted to the outcome of an exit poll. We know what that means: we'll go into work on Friday morning thinking we know what's going to happen, when the reality is that we don't know anything more than we did 24 hours earlier. If anything, that's worse than uncertainty.

There are many things wrong with how elections are conducted. The voting system is more than a century out of date. This obsession with voting on a Thursday and not at the weekend causes all sorts of needless disruption. And the sooner the present fashion of holding two elections at the same time comes to an end (as it is doing in Scotland), the better. But of all the problems, the Thursday night count is not on that list.

What I'm saying is, why not change the things that actually need changing, rather than getting rid of something that works well?

PS If you agree, you can join the Facebook Group here.


Cruachan said...

What I can't quite work out is where is all this pressure for change is coming from. Presumably the Association of Returning Officers/COSLA/LGA?

I can understand the argument for the dangers of tired Council staff doing recounts at 3.00am after a day at the office, but surely there should be a national decison on this (in this case only, national meaning UK-wide).

The prospect of, say a third of constituencies doing their count on a Friday and the rest on the Thursday, is recipe for total confusion, and would make for a very long election "night" party. (mind you, every cloud...) Happy memories of the Portillo moment in 1997.

I would go for a Saturday vote, UK-wide, with the votes counted and announced that night. While we're at it lets get more Polling Stations where people actually go already - supermarkets, sports stadia, etc.

Will said...

Cruachan, I think the tipping point was the Norwich North By-Election, where the count took place the following morning (I'm pretty sure it usually does in that area for most elections, but it was especially noticeable at the By-Election). I suspect that RO's all over the place started seeing this as a good idea and have, as a consequence, got themselves a bandwagon. Let us hope we can slash said bandwagon's tyres before it gets much further...

Anonymous said...

I'd like to be re-assured that the ballot boxes and the supporting paper-work for cross checking were kept secure overnight.
If there is any truth in the belief that boxes that get held up in traffic on the way to the count produce the most surprising results.....well we don't want any unfounded allegations of ballot stuffing now do we?