How do they count the votes on an Election Day?

polling station entrance sign

How will they count my vote? (photo by Matt From London CC-BY)

When the polls close at 10 pm on General Election Day in the UK, the votes must then be counted. In charge of an election is the Electoral Commission and their representative in a Parliamentary Constituency is the Acting Returning Officer (ARO).

The ARO decides when and where the count should take place. However, by law they are also required to carry this out within four hours, or within four hours supply a reason in writing as to why it has not taken place. Delay may occur as while some constituencies are very compact and secure delivery of the boxes to the counting room is swift, other constituencies are geographically widespread, for instance, with outlying islands, and delivery of the boxes may take considerably longer.

The counting of votes is described in precise detail in the Electoral Commission’s ‘Final Count Model’ (pdf). The three main stages are verification, sorting and counting.

The first task at the counting centre is verification of the votes. At the polling station, the number of blank ballot papers issued to voters is recorded and this must be checked against the number of ballot papers found in the ballot box. Postal votes must also be verified before counting. Returning officers are required to verify the identification information with original specimens on 20% of the postal ballots.

The ballot papers from different boxes and postal voting are then mixed prior to sorting. The ballots are then sorted into votes for each candidate and then counting of the votes takes place. This is carried out with teams of counters split into pairs. Those votes requiring adjudication because they are spoilt, or it is uncertain who was being voted for, are placed to one side.

A candidate may have a representatives present, known as ‘counting agents’, to check the process, by law they do not take part in the opening of the boxes or the count, but can observe. Their task is to see that the votes are counted correctly and to argue whether a spoilt or uncertain ballot paper placed in the adjudication pile should be included in the count.

The candidates and their agents can request a recount of the votes. There is no limit to the number of recounts, but the ARO can refuse if they think it is unreasonable.

Once counting is completed, the result can then be formally declared.

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  • eiffel says:

    The “Final Count Model” ends with a declaration of the winner, but doesn’t discuss what happens if the two leading candidates score an equal number of votes.

    In that case, the returning officer is required to choose the winner in a random way of his or her choosing. A toss of a coin would be allowed, but it’s considered more dignified to put a ballot paper for each candidate into a hat and draw one of them out.

    In the UK, council elections sometimes end in a dead heat, but it’s uncommon in a General Election where the voter numbers are much higher.

    According to a question asked at Google Answers, the last tie was in 1886 in Ashton-under-Lyme. But back then, the rule was that the returning officer got an extra, deciding, vote.

    “Google Answers: Tied vote in UK general election”

  • answerfinder says:

    Thanks for that. The procedure for equal votes is described in this Electoral Commission document. Page 21.

    The ARO can also use slips of paper with the candidates’ names on, each sealed in a envelope and then drawn; a pack of cards, and as agreed beforehand, lowest or highest card winning; a coin toss with the ARO deciding which of the candidates are heads or tails; or drawing straws.

    The winner receives an extra vote.

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