For all who have been nominated as vote count agents for Thursday, June 23rd, and for all who are worried – rightly so – about underhand dealings when it comes to the postal ballots, I’ll describe what ought to happen, according to the guidelines the Electoral Commission has given to all returning officers at the local councils where vote counts take place.
I’ve been nominated and “accredited” for both counts, the opening of the postal ballots having started here in my constituency on Friday June 17th, when I went to watch. The procedure is time consuming and tedious, and some councils which may have sent out a large number of postal ballots, have apparently started even earlier. This procedure will go on until Thursday, or until all postal ballots received have been dealt with – excluding those handed in at the polling stations during Thursday itself. These will be opened after 10 p.m. at the counting venue.
This is the procedure, observed by me and explained to me by the recording officers:
The official ballot envelopes are received and put into locked bins as they come in. In my constituency, there were seven big wheelie bins – with locks – full of them.
On the day of official opening, these envelopes were taken out and bundled into stacks of twenty-five. These stacks were then slit open, mechanically, nothing taken out, and the bundles of twenty-five opened envelopes were taken to the tables where the workers were sitting. These workers took out the content of the envelopes: the sealed envelope containing the actual ballot, labelled “A”, and the attached slip of paper labelled “B” which has the signature and date of birth of the voter.
Any official postal ballot envelope containing some additional paper got deposited in a box to be checked over by council counting officers in a separate office. There were no more than a handful of those on the day I watched.
Next, the slips “B” were detached from envelope “A”, and these slips were scanned to check if the senders had been registered at the council as having received a postal ballot form – the check of their eligibility for postal ballots had been done when sending the postal ballots out.
Any slips with illegible signature or incorrect date of birth were taken out, placed in a different box together with their envelope “A”, to be checked and reconciled by the council returning officer with their records. The workers doing the scanning told me that the rate of incorrect entries is about 7%.
Next, the checked slips are bundled into packs of twenty-five, and the workers are then allowed to open the envelope “A” which contains the actual ballot. They extract the ballot face down, so the actual vote cannot be seen, and check that the number printed on the back of each ballot is the same as that printed on envelope “A”.
Then the ballots – remember, the actual votes are not looked at and are not counted, are bundled into packs of 500, returned to sealed boxes, which in my constituency are then put into the lockable wheelie bins, to be kept in a locked room until Thursday night, when they will be transported to the vote counting venue.
So far so good, and so far so double-checked.
The important point to remember is that the postal votes handed in at the polling stations on Thursday, which will be taken to the vote count venue after 10 p.m., must be treated in exactly the way I described above – i.e. the identification slip “B” must be scanned and reconciled with council records before the envelope “A” can be opened – and that the number on the back of the actual ballot must be the same as that on the envelope from which it was taken. They must not be extracted and chucked in with the previously opened postal ballots unchecked!
Could some unchecked, unverified postal ballots be smuggled in? I suppose that is possible, but it would mean that a fair number of council workers need to be in on that.
Could there be a huge number of postal ballot boxes suddenly arriving at the vote count venue? We know that this is possible.
However – if all vote count watchers are on their toes and insist that the procedure (scanning, verifying, checking) is followed on the night, to the letter, then we would know – and tell! – that something underhand is going on. Any vote count watcher can tell the returning officer, any vote count watcher can ask for an official Electoral Commission agent to come and check – and while using smartphones inside the venue is prohibited, there’s no law prohibiting stepping out and making phone calls to let others know.
So, as always, it’s up to us to watch and see that our votes are not being scuppered by unprincipled people.