The changing face of elections

How things change. For my first election my jobs were to clean the sealing wax off the metal ballot boxes (both long gone), write the postal vote envelopes out by hand, and then the proxy poll cards and then reset all the pins in the stamping instruments. The computer room was the size of the interior of the Tardis and the computer (singular) had the processing power of my mobile phone.

No postal votes for parish elections in those days, as they didn’t come in for another few years yet, and no postal vote poll cards either, but we did have to extract their poll cards by hand, as the computer wasn’t sophisticated enough to exclude postal voters from the poll card run. The register was published once a year (Draft in November, Final in February), and the agents spent the winter evenings press ganging friends and relatives in to hand writing all the names and addresses for their closely typed A4 manifestos. Blondie were Top of the Pops, but in Norwich, we still talked about Norfolk’s very own Singing Postman.

I’m now in the beautiful county of Wiltshire, where the cathedral in Salisbury reminds me of my home city. We cover about 1300 square miles, and have 350 polling stations in five constituencies. We have about 360,000 electors, including 60,000 postal voters. In the old days, you’d just need to buy big Ernie and “Farmer” D at the depot a pint, and all the booths would be delivered, equipment would arrive on time, and then they’d be there later to clear up. Now, the only way we can plan things is to have a formal Transport Plan, with about 150 separate activities, the first of which kicked in last week.

The Electoral Services team receives a lot of support, right up to the top, and our most senior council officers not only act as Deputy (Acting) Returning Officers, but also get involved with the whole project. It is seen as a corporate project, and our initial planning involves Customer Services, Communications, Business Support, ICT, Transport, Legal, Highways, Facilities Management and others.

We try to make our work fun, such as we can within the confines of integrity, credibility and the tensions that exist at election time, and for example at last week’s Count Supervisors session we ran a Martin Brundle like grid walk around the room (another Norfolk man) to get a few tales. It also had a 20 minute practical session simulating the receipt of ballot boxes right through to the mini count process. I’ve long been a fan of mini-counts, ever since the late George Smith, walking encyclopaedia and true gentlemen, taught me all about them many years ago.

No need for Engagement Strategies in those days, as we had a 99.9% response rate on canvass forms, but we were blithely oblivious to the fact that some groups and individuals had almost certainly been missed altogether. Today, we focus on the large military contingent we have, care homes, and the young. We have worked for over a year with Bite The Ballot, and seconded their worker in to our Voice and Influence Research team rather than in to Electoral Services, as they have a lot more interaction with that age group. We also spend a certain amount of time identifying foreign national groups, but many are actually from English speaking countries. For others, Customer Services have interpreters on call, and we distribute foreign language material in the main target areas.

We had a couple of meetings with our external printer just before Christmas to agree key dates and processes. We sent them the most up-to-date register data a couple of weeks ago, and the poll cards are printed, ready and waiting for the Writ to appear. We also sent them our postal vote data a couple of weeks ago, so we are hoping to get about 60,000 out a few days after the close of nominations and before the 21 April deadline to apply for postal votes. We then send an update file of additions, amendments and deletions for both the poll cards and the postal votes nearer the time. The downside is that the printers then have to manually extract any deletions (ha – back to what we did with poll cards in the 70’s then!) or we cancel the postal vote on the system and send a poll card, but at least that way the standing postal voters get their ballot papers as soon as possible after nominations close, and only the additional 5% or so get them at a later stage.

John Watling, Deputy Acting Returning Officer
Wiltshire Council

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