Save general election night!

Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported how our traditional general election night is under threat from more and more councils wanting to move their count to a Friday.

Although there are some understandable reasons for this (principally the extra logistical burden of new checks against postal vote fraud), overall losing the drama of Thursday night through to the early hours of Friday morning would be a backwards step because:

  1. The drama of election night is one of the rare occasions when a mass public audience gets interested in the details of politics and hears news and information at more than nano-soundbite length.
  2. As not much else happens overnight, the election results get more and better media coverage than they do during the day, when there are more interruptions from other stories.
  3. Switching counts to Friday risks having the immediate news dominated by exit polls – i.e. largely about the UK-wide picture, whilst squeezing out the stories about the huge variations taking place all round the country. (A more partisan point is that it also means reports are likely to be pretty much all about the Labour/Conservative battle as the overall Lib Dem share of the vote in exit polls – unless very dramatic – is likely only to be a very rough indictator of the party’s performance in terms of seats. Saying “… and we don’t know about the Lib Dems” is likely to pale very quickly.)
  4. Particularly in the internet age, speculation and wild gossip quickly fills a news vacuum. Better to be providing hard information sooner rather than later.
  5. Quick counts provide more security against problems with ballot boxes being tampered with or lost. Serious allegations of this only happen rarely, but it is certainly not unknown.

Prompted by ConservativeHome’s Jonathan Isaby, a cross-party campaign is being run to “Save general election night!” Other supporters include Labour MP Tom Harris, and I’ve also signed up to back it.

You can back the campaign on Facebook by joining the group and outside of Facebook you can back the campaign by blogging about it or helping spread this post.

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13 Comments

  • Sorry Mark, I can’t disagree with you more!

    Having been involved as a candidate and agent with numerous counts over the last 18 years – at almost every election, local or national – I can honestly say that the one which was the most “productive” from any sense of the word was the Scottish local elections count in 2007. OK, there were some problems with the automatic counting used then, but at least we were just about awake enough to figure out what was wrong. The previous night, when counting in the Scottish Parliament elections slowed to a crawl, we were getting more and more tired. In fact, I think I only slept for about 4 hours out of 40 between 6am on the Thursday and 10pm on the Friday.

    Personally, I’d prefer polling day to be moved to a weekend or a Friday anyway, which would still allow for media coverage all day on the Saturday. Whichever happens, the drama of election night would still happen if the counting was during the next day. In fact, if you really wanted to plan the declarations for the TV, then it would allow returning officers to get all the ballot papers to the counting venues so that counts could all start at the same time.

    I also don’t think that the elections would suffer from other stories. Other than – for example – a major terrorist attack or internationally significant story, it’s highly unlikely that a general election would get bumped from the main headlines. And given that the BBC and Sky generally ignore any local elections outside of England & Wales, as well as the national parliament / assembly elections, it wouldn’t make any difference (BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC NI would still want to opt out.)

    Addressing the exit polls issue is simple – extend the ban on publication through to 12pm (or the start of counting)the next day. OK, they might leak out on the internet, but if the news channels and newspapers still couldn’t report it then the discussion would be less. And if the internet fills up with gossip and speculation, then remember that most people still get their news from the broadcasters or the newspapers and aren’t as internet reliant as maybe we are!

    In terms of security, remember that, in Northern Ireland, counts already take place for most elections the day afterwards, and have done for some period of time. If there ever has been an area of the UK where attempts to tamper with ballot boxes would have taken place in the last 20 years or so I suspect it would have been here, yet as you say there has been no occurrences of this nor is there any evidence of any attempts at manipulation.

    I suspect, though, there is one group of people who would want the counts to stay on the polling night, and that’s our employers – for the simple reason that they don’t like us checking the BBC website every five minutes….

  • “The drama of election night is one of the rare occasions when a mass public audience gets interested in the details of politics and hears news and information at more than nano-soundbite length. ”

    Possibly the worst time for this to happen is after the polls have closed !

    I doubt if the Sunday Times story is true, but Liberal Democrats with small majorities might value having the votes counted on Friday by people who are alert and less prone to mistakes.

  • Paul, if STV elections are counted manually then you have to start the next day, but if they’re done electronically then it can be done in about 4 or 5 hours. In general the electronic systems in Scotland worked for the STV elections – it was the parliament elections the counting machines didn’t like!

    There is still a manual process, though, with unclear / disputed papers, so you do need a degree of alertness.

  • David Allen 7th Sep '09 - 12:37pm

    Just how big is the “mass public audience” that stays up till 3am to get the results? OK, it’s all of us, but, doesn’t the rest of the nation increasingly think that politicians are just a bunch of irrelevant weirdos? If the drama got reported for the six o’clock news on Friday, and the pundits did their punditry on the Friday evening, wouldn’t more ordinary folks watch then?

  • I’d be careful of any arguments in favour of electronic vote counting currently – see Open Rights Group’s verdict on the Mayoral Elections for some sobering opinion.

  • One reason for Thursdays is that Friday, Saturday and Sunday all have religious significance for major religions in the UK. Polling on both Sat and Sunday would get around that problem but there is no evidence from pilot schemes that it increases turnout in any significant way.

    I’m with Paul, counting on the night of elections is a fairly ridiculous anachronism and, with one small exception, there aren’t any implications of starting a count at 9am on a Friday. In 1992 the Tories didn’t actual win their majority till the middle of Friday morning. I wonder if there are any audience figures for people who were still “up for Portillo”. I suspect it is less than those who say they were!

    The one potential reason for a count on the night is security, and that’s something not to be underestimated. Storage of ballot boxes overnight present options for actual or alleged tampering. However that could be addressed by greater use of the parties placing their own seals on ballot boxes – and ensuring that the seals are broken in clear view of the agents the following morning. You could also allow the parties to nominate observers to watch the ballot boxes in storage overnight – though that’s not a job I would volunteer for as it is definately of the “watching paint dry” variety!

  • Tony Greaves 7th Sep '09 - 5:10pm

    This is really good news. Counting overnight is a silly nonsense and with delays for postal votes (and double elections which are likely again) can go on late in the early morning (if you see what I mean).

    I have been pressing for next-day counts for some time and will vigorously support all such moves.

    Counting overnight is a recipe for mistakes (whcih probably take place on a bigger scale than we think).

    Anyway when we get STV it will have to be next day.

    Tony Greaves

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  • By Saving general election night: round-up of reaction on Mon 7th September 2009 at 9:57 pm.

    […] there’s been quite a response on this and other sites to the launch this morning of a campaign to save election night. Amongst the posts […]

  • By The LDV Friday Five (ish): 11/9/09 on Fri 11th September 2009 at 6:59 pm.

    […] since 1945 (11) by Mark Pack 3. Video: Don’t let the Tories airbrush history (6) by The Voice 4. Save general election night! (12) by Mark Pack 5. Saving general election night: round-up of reaction (6) by Mark […]

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