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?
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
- 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.