Martin, Senior Elections and Campaigners Adviser, tells us about his experience observing a by election in Wester Ross. No, not that one.
Game of Thrones returned to our screens this week for the eagerly-awaited final season. Over the next six episodes, followers of the show will finally discover who amongst the Starks, Lannisters, Greyjoys, Baratheons, and Tyrells etc., will battle their way to supremacy over the kingdoms of Westeros and take the prize of the iron throne.
While Westeros is a fictional place created by George R. R. Martin, Wester Ross is very much a real place. Located in the North West of Scotland, the area is renowned for its remoteness and the raw scenic splendour of its mountains and coastline. The area is also popular for its range of wildlife including many eagles and the ever present red deer – but no dragons that I saw.
Like its fictional counterpart, Wester Ross is no stranger to battles for supremacy – thankfully of the non-bloody kind. This Commission representative recently had the pleasure to observe a Highland Council by election for the Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh ward. The ward stretches from Atlantic Ocean in the west to the North Sea in the east and is reputed to be the size of Belgium – I didn’t measure it.
Running a by election over such a large rural area, and in the middle of winter – winter is always coming in Scotland – presents particular challenges for the Returning Officer and her team. For such a large area, the electorate for the ward was only around 9900. There are more red deer in Wester Ross than voters!
25 polling places were in use on polling day, including one in Opinan that turned out to be someone’s home. It was a pleasure to journey between many of the polling places and to meet the many friendly, tea-providing volunteers who gave up their time to support the democratic process. All the polling station staff I met were friendly, well-prepared, professional, and all seemed genuinely enthusiastic about participating in the process. Along the way I had hoped to drive over the famous Bealach na ba to Applecross. The pass is one of the highest roads in Great Britain – but sadly it just got too dark and I didn’t fancy the hairpin bends at 2000 ft. Next time perhaps.
There were a few characters along the way, such as the husband and wife team at Garve Village Hall, and the presiding officer at Poolewe who informed me that she was nearly late in opening the poll due to red deer on the roads – something I later discovered myself after it got dark at 4pm. It’s a bit spooky driving single track roads in the pitch dark, but thankfully the White Walkers were nowhere to be seen.
The role of observing at an election, from the Commission’s perspective and that of accredited observers, is to ensure that the poll is conducted in a transparent manner and in accordance with the law. Certainly all of the polling station staff and the candidates that I spoke to were complementary of the support they received from the Returning Officer and her staff throughout the process.
If you are interested in observing at an election, you can find out more about our Electoral Observer Accreditation Scheme.