Comment: Running the AV vote – a deputy returning officer’s tale

By Joe Kasper

This week’s AV and local election votes will be the most important ever, according to one Deputy Returning Officer.

The 42 local elections – 23 district wards and 19 parish wards – and AV vote mean that County Councils have been forced to employ more ballot counters than ever before.

About 120 counters have already been taken on in the neighbouring county of Kent. Ian Bigwood is in charge of organising voting in the Kent town of Sevenoaks, and May is going to be the busiest month of his year.

Ian’s regular job is Electoral Services Officer, which consists of maintenance of the electoral role and election boundary review – but come election time he also takes on the Deputy Returning Officer’s role.

As such, Ian is responsible for the conduct of the election at the polling stations, including co-ordinating all the counts for the numerous positions being elected in this week’s vote.

At the last local elections around 38 per cent of the registered population voted, but a marked increase is expected for next month’s vote.

Mr Bigwood said: “With the AV vote, it’s a constitutional thing. It can have a big effect.”

Postal votes have contributed to the increase in work load for counters at Kent County Council with over 10,000 people registered for it.

Work has already begun on these as they arrive on  the days leading up to May 5.

Ian predicts that around 70 per cent of those registered for postal voting will actually vote, an astonishing statistic compared to 15 per cent in 2005.

The schedule for the Deputy Returning Officer on the big day starts with a 5am wake-up for a 6.30am start ready for the 7am kick-off. Then at midday he is down at the leisure centre to check everything is in order for the count.

He’ll return at around 8.00pm to prepare for the count and then stays there when the three different ballot boxes of the district, parish and AV votes arrive at 10.15pm.

The next day there’s a 8.30am start where the contents of the ballot boxes have to be verified – so that the right amount of ballots match up to the councils figures – then the actual count can start with the local elections going first.

Calculating the AV votes won’t start until 4pm and by that time the local election counts will have been completed.

Everything will be done and dusted by 6pm and Ian is finally scheduled down the pub for 7pm, after 36 hours of work. His job will still not be done yet, as he will be going in on Saturday to pay everyone.

Returning Officer Robin Hales will announce the results as they come in on Friday, the AV votes having to be corroborated in Southampton first.  With some many important tasks to complete Ian said he will barely sleep for the two days of the voting process.

“Water and nervous energy get me through the days and keep me going,” he said.

Ian emphasises that he and his team are completely impartial up to the point of their own vote – with all staff having to declare that they have not helped a party.

Asked about his worst nightmare come May 5, Ian said: “Someone’s name is left off the ballot paper.”

With this possibility in mind, he also mentioned that in the past polling stations had been locked out of their building and had been forced to set up outside.

Whatever happens in this week’s vote, Ian will have more than earnt his break in June.

Joe Kaspar also writes for Sevenoaks Chronicle, where this article originally appeared.

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One thought on “Comment: Running the AV vote – a deputy returning officer’s tale

  1. That is a super-peachy-keen post. Thanks for really blathering on like that! Seriously, I don’t think I could have spent more effort wishing for something heavy to fall on me to erase that nonsense from my mind!

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