Harry Hayfield on the changes that could end overnight counting
Northern Ireland as we know is a law unto itself electorally. Not only do the norms of political convention not apply there (no Labour party or Liberal Democrats), but so the norms of electoral convention. For instance, can you see the returning officer in Sunderland South making a declaration at 10.42AM?
Earlier this year the Election Administration Bill was discussed in Parliament and it suggested that maybe Northern Ireland was right all along and put forward the idea of next day declarations. Now when this bill was initially published I wondered what planet they were on, but having a look at the data on declarations now realise they may have a point.
For most people, overnight declarations has been the norm. For instance, who can forget those images of Margaret Thatcher waving three fingers to Conservative party workers at Conservative Central Office at four in the morning in 1987, or Tony Blair addressing the Labour Party meeting at the Royal Festival Hall in 1997 with the words “A new dawn is it not?”, and yet it might surprise you to know it’s really quite a recent invention.
The concept only really got off the ground at the 1950 general election when 264 seats declared overnight, but following the advent of the televised general election in 1955, the pace quickened so that by the 1964 general election 430 seats now declared overnight. This meant that by the time you woke up on Friday morning, nearly 70% of all the seats had been declared (and you knew that a government was well on the way to being formed).
In 1979, by the time the BBC had packed up for the night you had 71% of the seats declared and in a close election (such as February 1974), you had the whole of the second day to follow every turn. However, in 1983 the accelerator pedal was pushed to the floor as a staggering 86% of seats declared overnight and it got worse as technology improved.
By the 1990’s, only 9% of seats were left to declare the following day (averaging a declaration every 30 seconds), in fact in the Labour landslide of 1997, only 17 British seats were left to declare by the time the BBC finished the Election night special. This means that now, at the last election in 2005 only 20 odd seats declare on the following day (or in that case the following two days) in Britain.
So what makes the Election Administration Bill so important to the concept of overnight declarations? Well, one of the bill’s provisions calls for extra checks during the verification process (similar to those in Northern Ireland) and this is why Northern Ireland doesn’t start to declare until well into the afternoon of the following day.
If you were a returning officer faced with making more stringent checks (that could take up to three hours) would you like to say to your staff, “Right, that’s the hard work done, now for the counting!”. I don’t think so either.
So how would the new Election programme look then? Well, you would still have the polls closing at 10.00pm (with the obligatory exit poll) and then presumably the real speed merchants would still declare overnight (for instance the new Sunderland Central or the new Houghton and Sunderland South) but the majority of counts wouldn’t start until the following morning at 9.00am.
Based on 2005, it would fair to assume that the first declarations would start about 11.00am, and the rush would start coming in around 1.00pm. And here’s where I think the bill has a clever (if unexpected) idea. Would more people vote in elections if they could see their vote being counted? My personal opinion is that they would. Northern Irish turnouts have been higher than British turnouts for some time. This was most striking in 2001 when Northern Ireland recorded a turnout of 68%, compared to Britain’s 59%.
So, yes, let’s have next day declarations and perhaps give it a trial run at next year’s elections to Wales, Scotland and local councils. I mean there’s no way even the BBC can cover three elections at the same time is there?
Harry Hayfield is a Welsh Lib Dem activist and often writes for PBC