Seeking to Observe The Election Count in Cambridge


Saturday, April 28th, 2012. 12:50am


Returning Officer advises ‘accredited media’ represent media organisations such as newspapers, radio stations etc.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted drawing attention to the fact that election counts in Cambridge are not open to the public and asked what arrangements were in place for those wishing to observe and report on proceedings.

This resulted in a number of local politicians, including elected councillors, asking why the count was not open to the public, and suggesting that I ought be allowed access.

Both for the current elections, and previous ones, I have been invited to attend to observe, comment, and report, on the count and the subsequent results as a counting agent. I have declined this offer as there are significant responsibilities placed on counting agents, (eg. they have to attend the whole count) and my interpretation of their role is they have a responsibility to their particular candidate. Consequently my view is that becoming a counting agent for a candidate for a particular party might damage my independence in the eyes of those looking on. Certainly no professional journalist would accept access to proceedings as a counting agent.

Some people have been permitted access to election counts in Cambridge to observe and report on proceedings; I know this as footage from the count has appeared on BBC television channels, and the Cambridge News has reported live on Election night “as it happens”.

The council recently revealed via twitter, in response to discussions on if I would be allowed access, how they determine who is allowed in. The council revealed it “invites a list of media”, it has promised to provide the list to Cllr Pogonowski, though has not published it.

Twitter exchanges with the council also revealed the existence of an application form for those seeking “media accreditation” from the council so as to be allowed to observe the count. The existence of this form is not mentioned on the councils’ elections webpage where I would expect to find it. So those beyond the select organisations proactively invited by the council would have no way to know of its existence.

On the 18th of April 2012 I tweeted in the direction of Cambridge City Council asking:

What are the arrangements for those wishing to observe and report on the election count?

The council responded:

Admittance to the general public is not provided under electoral law. The Returning Officer permits accredited media to attend

Cllr Adam Pogonowski joined the discussion saying

How does one become ‘accredited media’? I think Mr. Taylor does excellent media-job in #Cambridge.

The council replied:

Returning Officer advises ‘accredited media’ represent media organisations such as newspapers, radio stations etc.

Noting the “etc.” at the end of the stated policy, and thinking it might indicate the presence of a large enough loop-hole to slip into the count through, I decided to apply via Twitter for accreditation under that provision.

The council then emailed me a form to complete to apply for access.

I have made a copy of the form available.

The form states it is for “Thursday 3 May 2011″ but it was provided in relation to the 2012 elections.

The form is designed for organisations, but I completed it noting that I am an individual. In the section asking what my role will be on the night I wrote:

Member of the public, tweeter, blogger, photographer, camerman, interviewer, reporter, scrutineer, commentator etc.

The deadline mentioned on the form had passed but the council officer sending the form said she was happy to extend it. She asked me to get the form back by the morning of Friday the 27th of April, I actually sent it in on the Friday evening. The covering email stated that following the return of the completed form the officer:

can then make sure you get the security pass and press pack that will provide you with further information.

It will be interesting to see if I am allowed access.

While the Returning Officer is responsible for the election, policy on things relating to the count is discussed by the City Council’s Civic Affairs Committee, who review each election. I’ve observed this debrief on a couple of occasions. At one councillors suggested the returning officer should spend their special extra payment on the provision of snacks for those attending and televisions ought be provided in the council’s meeting rooms so those present can watch the rolling news channels throughout the night. The other main concern of councillors was the speed of getting the count(s) done. A bunch of excuses were given as to why, even though it is geographically small, Cambridge isn’t one of those places which competes to be the first get its general election results out.

Action

I will write to the chairman of the Civic Affairs committee suggesting the committee consider the arrangements for access to the count for those wishing to observe and report on proceedings.

My Views

My view is the election count process should not be secretive; we shouldn’t only have the candidates themselves, and their guests and agents able to assure us that everything was above board.

As well as the count, dissemination of the results is a key factor, I don’t think the council ought be giving its selected media outlets an advantage over other information sources.

I have no idea if speeches are made following the announcement of local election results, as they are after general election results, but I know that the national TV coverage at general elections often misses acceptance speeches of the winners, and rarely shows anything said by the other candidates. If local people were allowed to report on the result announcements then what’s said might be transmitted to a wider audience.

Being at the count will also allow those present to be asked for their comments during the evening and following the results; its not fair that only media organisations hand picked by, and perhaps friendly with, the council get that access. Patronage creates an environment conducive to corruption.

Generally I simply think having as much of the operation of the state in the public domain is the best way to run the country, it gives greater confidence in the system and allows more people to understand, and follow what is going on.

Freedom of Information

I note returning officers are not subject to Freedom of Information law so they have no legal requirement to publish their policies and procedures relating to access to the count, or information such as who has been invited or accredited to attend.

There is no right to obtain information, such as for example details of numbers of spoilt ballots (if not proactively published), or breakdowns of votes by voting district (or by ward in the case of a general election).

Secret Ballot

I think it’s worth noting my view that maintaining the secrecy of the ballot is of utmost critical importance. That votes are cast in secret (at least if they’re cast in a polling station!) is in my view a critical part of our democratic system as it means people can’t be co-erced into voting a particular way. (Personally I would not allow postal votes without good reason, in order to defend this element of the process).

Ballot papers are numbered and the number of the paper issued to each individual is recorded. It therefore theoretically possible to find out who voted which way. This information is held by the returning officer; the information is protected by procedure, the law, and physical security, rather than by the infinitely stronger means (which I would prefer) of not holding it in the first place.

Affinity Radio

Having observed the Twitter exchange, a request from local internet radio station Affinity Radio also sought permission to attend, and have been sent an application form.

See Also:

  • In 2009 I sought accreditation as an election observer – as I did not receive accreditation in time for the count I withdrew my application after the election. While registered as an observer you have to “maintain strict political impartiality at all times, including during their leisure time”, as someone who wants to be an active citizen that’s not something I am prepared to agree to for an extended period, but would have been happy to do in 2009 for a short period around the election count.

13 comments/updates on “Seeking to Observe The Election Count in Cambridge

  1. Phil Rodgers

    “I have no idea if speeches are made following the announcement of local election results”. They are not, though the party group leaders usually get interviewed by local media.

  2. Richard Johnson

    My personal opinion is that the electorate of Cambridge should be able to, in some capacity, view the democratic process take place. I don’t see any reason why members of the public can’t view proceedings of the count from the gallery of the Large Hall.

    Secondly, I hope that the City Council realise the importance of ‘new’ media in relation to the coverage of the count.

    With the money spent on improving the quality of its content through social media, and the recent decision by councillors to allow filming of meetings, I am intrigued as to why the City Council supposedly find it difficult to appreciate the significance of reporting outside the ‘traditional’ media operators (i.e. Cambridge News, BBC, ITN, local radio, etc).

    We should just accept that unmediated journalism and reporting is here to stay. And a good thing too.

  3. James Youd

    Having attending counts in Cambridge, Brighton and London I can tell you that while Cambridge has the advantages of the public gallery (which the media use), the count I attended at Brixton Town Hall for the general election and Hove Town Hall for the 2011 locals, there was hardly room for those of us who were there!
    It is a balance between transparency and not having a zoo whereby any member of the public who is vaguely interested can wonder in and out of the building!
    The setup is of course that the counting agents of candidates and other biased parties (aka councillors not up for reelection) cannot touch the tables on which the council staff are counting the ballots.
    What I think the council could do is allow the media greater access to that part of the process without the endless speculation that could cause.
    Maybe the council should have a ‘citizens’ allocation of say a dozen and that if anyone such as yourself Richard is genuinely interested, then there is a formal process through which you can be allowed in.
    Southend Council videos each declaration and posts it on its website… Food for thought.

  4. Lewis Herbert

    You raise an important issue Richard – there is a good argument for a ‘public gallery’ at future counts, though it is too late to organise this properly year. The unwary also need to know in advance how long counts can take – 5am and still counting last year, after several blank hours when combined with the AV referendum.

    There would need to be some basic rules eg not releasing any mid-count information or mid-count misinformation.

    But as you and Richard Johnson are saying, welcome we should welcome the new ‘multi media’ world, and a further opportunity to increase council and democratic transparency.

  5. Cllr.Adam Pogonowski

    Here’s the link, as requested. Will be happy to work with Labour, and Lewis, in getting a public gallery for future counts.

    Press organisations invited
    Cambridge News
    “BBC Look East

    ITV Anglia
    “BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

    http://www.parliamentaryradio.com
    Star FM
    Heart FM
    Varsity
    CAM FM
    Archant (publisher of Cambridge First)
    APEX
    Cambridge Student
    Affinity FM Radio
    Richard Taylor – blogger

  6. Edward

    I wasn’t aware that counting agents need to be present for the entire count – certainly that hasn’t been enforced at either of the counts I’ve attended at Cambridge, as it wouldn’t be feasible to keep people there until 5am and beyond.

    As for the suggestion of the Civic Affairs Committe that there be a TV in a meeting room, that was certainly the case in 2010. I don’t believe that happened in 2011, although I dimly recall that the BBC’s local elections programme was being shown on the TV in the cafe downstairs.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    I spoke to the returning officer earlier.

    She warned me not to publish the results before she announces them and said she would allow me to observe the count.

    I’ve been sent the “media pack” and have made it available online (PDF).

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve got my wristband, which along with some photo-ID should let me in:

    pink wristband saying Election Count on it

    The accompanying letter comes from the council’s corporate marketing department!

  9. Sal

    Excellent! Well done, not just for you but for all independent journalists.

    Plenty of seditious tweeting now, please!

  10. greg butler

    I am amazed that Cambridge 105 The only Commmunity Radio Station for the whole of Cambridge broadcasting on FM is not on the accreditation list for Media Presence….

  11. Richard Taylor Article author

    In relation to a 2014 City Council by-election count:

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