Behind the scenes at the election - Simon Copley

Behind the scenes at the election - Simon Copley

Simon Copley from Ryedale District Council has the day-to-day responsibility for organising the General Election vote and count for the Thirsk and Malton Constituency.  In this blog, he takes us behind the scenes of an election, and gives an insight into some of the work that goes into voting day.

As Deputy Returning Officer I project manage the election for the Thirsk and Malton constituency on behalf of the Acting Returning Officer.  I work with the business and democracy team here at Ryedale District Council, who deal with all the core operational tasks of the election.  Then to cover postal votes, polling, counting the vote and so on, we have a much bigger team drawn from people across the Council, and some external help too.

The first thing we need to do when we get the date for the general election, is to finalise the timetable for all the tasks. Some of the timetable is set by law, so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got all those dates and deadlines in place, because everything else fits around that.  On a scheduled election we could be working on the plans up to a year in advance.  But if it’s a snap election, like this one, we’ve got a lot less time to get everything ready.  The most challenging thing about a snap general election is just getting it up and running. It feels like having to go from nought to two hundred miles an hour to get it all planned.  But once the plans are in place, it pretty much runs like a scheduled election.  

The Thirsk and Malton constituency cuts across three different council areas:  Ryedale, Hambleton and Scarborough, and Ryedale District Council handles the election.  Whereas in a local election we’d just be dealing with one set of information, in a general election we are dealing with data from three councils, so everything is in triplicate.  It’s much more complex.

Sorting out the venues is one of the immediate things we have to do, because we need enough time to print the polling cards which include the polling centre information.  We have 132 polling stations for a general election, so we need to make sure that they are available, and find alternatives if not.  Even though this election was pretty short notice, there was only one venue that wasn’t available, and we had an alternative that we’ve used before, so it was easy to slot in.

There was a lot of talk in the media about using schools as polling stations, and whether it would disrupt nativity plays or other school activities, so near to Christmas.  We don’t use any schools as polling stations in our area.  However in a couple of villages we have polling stations that are in people’s houses.  We do that when there is no community venue in the village or nearby, so that people can still vote locally and don’t have to go elsewhere.  We also have some pubs that act as polling stations, and we use the National Trust base at Bransdale.  It’s a beautiful location looking out across the tops of the Dales, so it’s probably our most scenic polling station.  Obviously we check each venue beforehand to make sure there is adequate space, good access, and that voting can take place with the necessary secrecy and privacy. 

As well as the polling stations, we also have to book the count venue.  We need a lot of space for the count, which is why we use a sports centre.  Then we have to book rooms here at Ryedale House where we can pack ballot boxes, open postal votes and keep everything secure.  Our Council Chamber is the only room big enough to take all the 130+ ballet boxes, and it is also where we hold civic functions and registrar events like weddings.  Because this election date was short notice, we’ve had to adapt the election preparation plans to work around a wedding – we wouldn’t want to disrupt someone’s big day!

After the venues we sort out staffing.  We have teams to do postal votes, teams to pack the ballot boxes, and each polling station has at least two staff.  Then there’s the polling station inspectors who go out to check the stations on the day, all the logistics of delivering and collecting boxes, and everyone who counts the ballot papers.  We have to appoint most of those people formally by letter, they have to sign and accept, and sometimes we need to provide training.  It is quite a big task. 

Before the actual voting day we are dealing with the postal votes.  The postal ballot papers are returned with a postal vote statement, which includes a space for the elector to write their signature and date of birth.  To prevent fraud, we have to check that the signature matches the one on the records we hold, and the records that Hambleton and Scarborough councils have provided. So when we open postal votes in advance of the election, we’re not looking at who has voted for which candidate.  We are looking at the postal vote security statement, to see if it’s a valid postal vote. Once the checks are done, the postal ballot papers are secured in ballot boxes, and we only look at what’s on the papers when it gets to the count.

On the election day we have an early start.  As a team we try to cover the work in shifts, because it’s a long day and night.  One of the key tasks at the start of the day is to make sure that everything is okay when the polls open at 7am in the morning.  We have to check that all the venues are accessible and that everybody is where they need to be.  We have contingency plans in case someone is severely ill, or if someone’s car has broken down and they can’t get there – all the things that might happen on the day.  Then, during the day, we will be dealing with a lot of election enquiries from polling stations. There will also be more postal votes to open, and we will spend more time at the count centre, making sure everything is set up and ready to go for the count.   

When it comes to the count itself, my job is to coordinate and manage the actual process of the vote counting.  I’ll be linking in with the (Acting) Returning Officer – that’s Stacey Burlet, Ryedale District Council’s CEO – to give an overview of what’s going on, so everybody knows what’s happening through the different stages of the process.  I’ll also be on hand to deal with queries and questions from the count teams.  Sometimes it might be a query about the process, or sometimes we are dealing with doubtful papers, which means there’s a query as to whether a ballot paper is valid, or whether it should be rejected.  Ryedale’s Section 151 Officer, Anton Hodge, will be there to act as adjudicator for doubtful papers.

For a parliamentary election we have to start counting by 2am at the latest - four hours after the polling stations close.  We will achieve that, but having the clock ticking is quite a challenge for a constituency like ours, which is very large, and very rural.  Our last ballot boxes will be reaching the count centre after 1 o’clock in the morning, whereas some constituencies, like Sunderland and Newcastle, will have counted everything and declared a result by that time.  The logistics of running a big rural constituency are very different to a concentrated urban one, where the population density is much higher.

After the result of the election is declared, there are various things we have to do before we all go home.  For example, there is something called the writ, which is issued to us by Parliament, in the Queen’s name.  It gives us the instruction to run the election, and at the end we have to write on the back to say which candidate has been returned, and send that back to Parliament.   We also have to sort out the deposits to be returned to candidates, or sent to the government, if a candidate has not received enough votes to return the deposit. 

Then, in the weeks following, there’s a whole host of wrapping-up activities to do.  We have to archive all the ballot papers, which are kept for a year. We will do the statistical returns, work out the payments for staff who have worked on the election, and replenish all the election paper stocks so we are ready to go again when there is another election.  We will contact postal voters whose vote was rejected to get a refreshed signature, in case it has changed from the original they supplied. And we also have to do a rigorous set of accounts that we submit for audit, so that the council can claim the money it receives from government for running the election.

Here at Ryedale we have a great core team that works on elections, but a general election is really a whole council project.  Everyone wants to get involved and throws themselves into it.  There is a buzz about the council at election time, but it does have its challenges.  There is a lot of work to do – especially when the election comes at short notice.  An election displaces routine work, and also people’s family lives, because of the long hours we need to work to get everything done.  Also, this is the third election in a year which is unprecedented.  It means that our day-to-day business has seen a lot of disruption over the last 12 months, all due to elections.

As for me personally, I really like elections – but I think there’s a little bit of “Marmite” about it.  You love and hate them for different reasons. The downside is the long hours, it’s tiring and it’s pressurised.  The scale of the task can seem quite daunting, and for me there’s a personal responsibility to make sure things go right, so the stakes are high.  On the upside, people really do pull together to get the job done, and it never ceases to amaze me how we get over all the obstacles and make it happen.  It gives you a real sense of achievement.