Vote counters, returning officers and polling clerks - meet the people on the frontline of elections in Yorkshire

On the frontline as Britain heads to the ballot boxes is an army of polling clerks and vote counters, thousands-strong. Away from the spotlight of candidates, victorious and otherwise, they play an important role in the administration of democracy.

That position on the ground, in polling stations and counting halls, gives front-row access to political theatre as it begins to unfold across the country. And it can also bring with it early clues to the mood of the day’s electorate, whether that be suspicion or apathy, enthusiasm or anger.

An election count underway in Leeds.

An election count underway in Leeds.

For Susan Wallis, this was particularly true of the 2016 European Union referendum. It was the most dramatic she has worked on - and she has covered local and general elections as a polling clerk or vote counter in Barnsley since the late 1980s. “It felt like everybody was a bit angrier,” she recalls. “They just seemed different.”

In the run up to the referendum, the hashtag #usepens gained traction on Twitter, amid talk over doctoring fears. The Electoral Commission received “almost 200 calls” from voters worried about using a pencil on 23 June that year.

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Wallis says there was a definite air of suspicion at the polling station she was manning in Cudworth, with one voter trying to grab a pen needed by staff on the entrance desk.

Votes are counted in Sheffield.

Votes are counted in Sheffield.

“With the Brexit referendum, we had people commenting saying there’s pencils in the booth. Nobody had ever commented on it before that year and then we got people saying I want to do mine in pen. I don’t know whether it was people who hadn’t voted before - but there’s nothing sinister in it.”

“I found that people seemed to be more suspicious in the referendum particularly - (suggesting) there’s an ulterior motive for this that and the other,” she adds.

Perhaps a sign of the strength of feeling on Brexit, still manifested three years on in the deep divisions pervading society, the turnout for the referendum was 72.2 per cent, higher than every UK General Election since 1992.

“A lot of people came out to vote that hadn’t voted before,” Wallis says. “We also had that with the 2017 General Election. We had people coming in their 50s that were voting for the first time. We got a lot of new voters.”

After an eight-decade low of 59.4 per cent in 2001, General Election turnout has been slowly rising, with 68.8 per cent heading to the polls to cast their vote in 2017.

Though just 0.2 per cent of ballot papers across the country were rejected, Jane Shilleto, who has worked at local and general election counts in Leeds since 2007, says she witnessed more spoilt ballots than she had ever seen before.

“There was a lot, more than I have ever known,” she says. “I think it was because people were so fed up of the Brexit indecision and in-fighting among the Government. Some people had crossed every candidate and written ‘they are all as bad as each other’.”

At the local elections earlier this year, a number of voters angry with the handling of Brexit by Labour and the Conservatives revealed they had spoiled their ballots in a furious protest move.

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There has been talk this time of Leave voters invalidating their papers by writing ‘Brexit Party’ in seats where Nigel Farage has stood down his candidate - but how that plays out at the polls tomorrow, in an election branded by some as one of apathy and distrust, remains to be seen.

More than three million people applied to register to vote since MPs agreed to the ballot at the end of October, a figure 38 per cent higher than applications in a similar period in the 2017 election.

In Sheffield, around 21,000 additional people registered in the weeks ahead of the deadline. “The biggest challenge that we have had this time around - and it’s a pleasing one - is a surge in people registering to vote,” reflects John Mothersole, the city’s returning officer.

“It’s a high profile General Election with a fair bit of controversy associated with it and that’s drawn in a lot of new people.”

Behind the scenes, it is the role of returning officers - the mayor or chairman of the local authority or the Sheriff of the county - up and down the country to effectively administer the election. They oversee planning at a local level, drawing on sufficient staff and resources, including polling clerks and counters, and securing venues for polling booths.

The latter is not a straightforward task, particularly in rural communities, as Darren Stevens, a deputy returning officer in East Yorkshire explains. One couple in the county hit the headlines in 2017 for hosting one of the country’s smallest polling station from their kitchen.

“Some of these buildings, such as churches, can get freezing cold in the winter,” Stevens says. “We have had to think perhaps more than we normally would about heating and lighting, and health and safety.”

“Some rural areas you might only have a total electorate of less than 100,” he adds. “You might only see 40 voters all day. “We have to look for the best possible solution to make the polling station as close to the voters as possible. If there’s no school or village hall, you have to use your imagination.”

It’s not the only challenge in remote communities. When the polls close at 10pm, the ballot boxes all over the country must be taken from polling stations to counting halls for votes to be tallied - and that can mean long journeys across rural expanse.

“That’s more of a challenge for us and it takes us a bit longer to do than urban places,” Stevens admits. “The polling stations could be a 50 minute drive away from the count centre so it normally takes us over an hour to get all the ballot boxes to each centre. Some will be quick but because of our rural nature, some will take a long time.”

When the boxes arrive, the votes are verified and counting begins, in many places running through the night, before results are declared. “As soon as 10 o’clock comes, it starts to get serious,” says Shilleto, who lives in Tadcaster.

“The mood in the room changes as the boxes start arriving and you are concentrating on your own work then. You forget about everybody else even through the count hall is packed to the rafters.”

Candidates and their staff typically walk the room as the votes are counted. “They’re looking at you and trying to keep track of the votes...You can often tell, when you divide them into piles, before counting, who will win because one pile will be bigger than the others.

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“Some of the candidates get a bit too close to the counting tables but that’s just enthusiasm as opposed to anything else. They are as keen to know the results as we are.”

“It can be quite exciting,” says Stevens. “There’s that sense of being part of quite a dramatic night, a sense of excitement at being part of what’s going on across the country.”

It is the job of returning officers - and in some cases their deputies - to adjudicate any ‘doubtful’ ballot papers, working to establish the voter’s intention when deciding whether or not votes are void.

Shilleto recalls a case, in a local council election, of a ballot marked with a cat. It was accepted as valid.

“Someone had gone to the trouble of, rather than putting a cross in the box, drawing a big fat cat. It was a beautiful drawing - I don’t know how long they were in the ballot booth for. There was a debate whether it would be accepted or not, but it was all within one box for a particular candidate.”

Once the votes are tallied, the declaration can be a time of tension and drama for those on the frontline. “The count is very busy and surprisingly noisy,” says Mothersole. “There’s lots of talking and walking around. Then as you start to declare results, you get some very noisy, happy people cheering away and others heading for the exit pretty quickly.”

Candidates and their agents are entitled to request a recount. In 2015, votes were counted for a second time in the hotly-contested Morley and Outwood constituency. Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls lost his seat to Conservative candidate Andrea Jenkyns by 422 votes, becoming the highest profile Labour casualty of that General Election.

“We just said right okay, if you want it, it’s your right,” recalls Shilleto, who was involved in the recount. “We will sit down and count them again. There was no disparaging comments. I’ve seen closer votes than that - but it’s their right to ask for a recount.”

With British politics in a volatile state and many voters yet to make up their minds, the nationwide outcome after the polls shut tomorrow is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for certain - that army of polling clerks and vote counters will be on hand once again for the serious business of putting democracy in action.

The reason why? “The fact it has been done like this for generations and will likely continue to be done in this way for years to come so you feel part of the system,” says Shilleto, “and of the whole [polling day] process, which is very honest and open to scrutiny.

“You are part of history, even it it’s just for a small amount of time. You are part of a bigger working organisation to bring people to Parliament to represent you.”