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The Count

The Count. Years of campaigning have come to this. There isn’t any more you can do, although your head is full of all the things you wished you could have done, or done better. Over the next few hours you will be watching the outcome of all your efforts being quantified, achingly slowly, before your very eyes.

As boxes are upturned onto tables and ballots come pouring out, counting clerks begin the process of placing into piles the votes for you, and the votes for all the others. Parts of that process give you the opportunity of making a good guess about the result before it’s announced.

In brief, the process of the count is as follows. First of all, counting clerks have to verify that the number of ballots in each box match the number that were put in them when they were sealed at the polling stations. Once this is done, ballots from two polling districts are mixed and the actual Count begins by placing ballot papers into piles of the respective candidates. From here the piles of votes are put into bundles. Any doubtful ballot papers (where there is a dispute over who the elector has voted for, or if it should be rejected for any reason) go through adjudication and can then be added to the bundles. After this the Returning Officer can inform election agents of the final result and if no re-counts are requested, he makes the declaration of the result.

So if you want to be able to make a good guess about what the result will be before the declaration, get to the Count before the verification stage begins. This will give you a chance to view votes from individual polling districts before they are mixed. Whether you’re there for a local council election or a parliamentary one, it’s best to find a mix of your best and worst polling districts, plus swing polling districts, in order to give you as balanced a picture as possible.

As the ballots are being verified, you can keep a tally sheet of how many votes you’ve seen for each candidate. This is called sampling. By doing this in your best and worst polling districts, you can gauge whether or not you think you’ve won. Obviously the more sampling you do, the more representative your sample but be aware of the turnout in each district. You may be comfortably winning in your better polling districts, but if turnout in those districts has been low then so will your vote.

Sampling often takes practice to get right but it’s possible through experience to become very good at it, giving you the chance to predict results before they’re declared.

For newer parties or those wishing to make inroads into new areas, sampling also gives you an indication about which polling districts are good for you and therefore where to concentrate effort for the next election.



A small number of other observations

The most important people in the room are not the candidates, but the polling clerks who are counting the votes. By all means stand and watch them count (as you’re supposed to) and challenge where you need to, but don’t chat (or worse, argue) with others while you stand there watching them count.

Get briefed by your election agent before the Count on what doubtful ballot papers are. If you don’t get briefed, then don’t make challenges.





Should opinion polls be banned during election campaigns?

If you’re interested in politics and haven’t yet signed up to Benedict Brogan’s Morning Briefing, you’d better go do that now. Today’s email proved yet again why the Telegraph’s breakfast bulletin makes for essential reading.

Brogan was setting out why the recent movements in the opinion polls have been so significant:

Good morning. Two polls giving the Tories a lead - and on the morning Labour's fancy new American hire flies in to town for his first meeting with Ed Miliband: the effect on Conservative MPs will be equal to an adrenaline shot to the heart. They have been desperate for evidence that the tide is turning, and now they have it.

But it was what he said about the wider importance of opinion polls that was so important:

Polls are about psychology as much as about facts. They shape what people like me say, and they affect the mood of politicians.

He’s absolutely right. Opinion polls don’t just reflect public opinion, they end up having a ripple effect. They shape what commentators write and therefore what people read. They affect confidence among politicians and morale among activists. They can present one party as having momentum and others as losing ground. One leader on the up, the other on the way out. You can see why opinion polls, as well as reporting what people think now, actually end up influencing what people think in the future too.

And yet the nature of opinion polling means they can get things right and yet be wrong at the same time. Lord Ashcroft explained as much this week, writing on his blog:

When reading the polls it is also important to remember that they operate within margins of error. In practice this means that 19 times out of 20, the figures will be within perhaps 2% or 3% of the truth, depending on the sample size… It is therefore possible that a pollster may publish a survey which is statistically flawless, yet gets all the parties in the wrong order. Suppose the final poll of the campaign puts Labour first on 36%, the Conservatives second on 35%, UKIP third on 12%, the Lib Dems fourth on 10% and Others on 7%. And suppose when the votes are counted the Tories end up with 37%, Labour come second on 35%, the Lib Dems third on 12%, UKIP fourth on 10%, and Others on 6%. By research standards the poll would be completely right; to everyone else it would look completely wrong.

I should perhaps declare an interest here and say how much I love opinion polls. If there's a poll around, I'll read it and any other the breakdowns by age, gender, region and 2010 vote too.

But given the way opinion polls can start to lead opinion, and given that they could be statistically flawless and yet wrongly put one party ahead of another, there is perhaps a case for not having them within 2 weeks of polling day itself.

In the same way that the build-up and post-analysis of the televised debates dominated news coverage of the election campaign to the point of distracting from debate about policies, so too could opinion polls.

If we were to have the televised debates happening early in the campaign and no polls in the last fortnight, there might be a danger of a real election campaign breaking through with policies being the focus - instead of news about which parties have gone up/down by a percentage point from the day before.