[NOTE: This piece was drafted prior to the suggestion being made that the EU membership referendum might be held on the same day as the devolved elections in 2016.)
This piece constitutes something of a change of direction for the Blog. We’ve spent a lot of time over recent weeks and months looking at the general election, and at the support levels of the parties. This has all been fairly data-heavy: i.e. grounded in the quantitative evidence of surveys and election results.
Today, I hope you might permit me to indulge in a little bit of, largely evidence-free, editorialising. I’d like to make the case for changing one specific feature of how next year’s National Assembly for Wales election is run. Specifically, I’d like to propose that the votes in this election be counted not overnight, as has normally been the case, but on the following morning.
Each voter in next year’s devolved elections, in both Scotland and Wales, will have two votes. One is for an individual representative in their constituency. The second is for a party; that vote will be used to allocate the four regional list seats within each of the five regions of Wales. (For more details on how the electoral system in National Assembly elections works, see here). The voter receives two ballot papers. (They tried using a single ballot paper, and machine counting of those papers, in Scotland in 2007, but that did not go well.) Once you have selected your preferred constituency candidate, and preferred party on the list, you then take both ballot papers and place them in the same ballot box.
Once the polls close at 10pm, the sealed ballot boxes will be transported to the relevant counting centre. After the various verification checks are gone through, the ballot papers then have to be separated into constituency and list ballots. (They usually make them different colours, which helps). Then the counting can begin. Most places seem to count and declare the constituency contests first. Even so, in recent elections it has taken quite a long time for the first results to come in, and many of them haven’t been declared until about 3am or 4am – some five to six hours after the close of poll.
It hasn’t always been like this. In the inaugural National Assembly election in 1999, counting was done on the following morning. The same practice was followed in one region of Wales (north Wales) in 2011. I propose that we follow this practice across Wales next May.
Why, you might well ask. Well, I see two advantages to Wales in counting the following morning. The first is that a morning count would help raise the profile of the National Assembly election results, both in Wales and across the rest of the UK. In the overnight election shows, the bulk of the attention of the media and public across the UK, and among some in Wales too I daresay, will be elsewhere: on the results for the Scottish Parliament election, and on the English local council elections. By counting simultaneously with those elections, we in Wales are pretty much guaranteeing that we will be only the third most-covered election story of the night. If we were to delay the count until the following day, there is some chance of the media across Britain paying rather more attention to Wales: with the bulk of the counts completed in Scotland and England, we would be the only major results coming out at that stage. This would therefore allow for greater media focus on Wales. Given the low levels of public and media knowledge of Welsh politics, I think we should do everything we reasonably can to help raise the profile of the election. And this would be one, small, thing that we easily could do. Gwnewch y pethau bychain!
The second reason for favouring doing the count the following morning is that it will allow the whole process to be done rather more efficiently. Instead of having people waiting around in the count centres until the ballot boxes arrive, and then having them working through the night, we can do it in a much better way. The teams of counters can all get a good night’s sleep (unless they are political obsessives, like me, who will be watching the Scottish and English results coming in through the night). Then, when they come in to do the count the following morning, all the ballot boxes can be in place and everything ready to go for when the count actually starts. That ought to allow the counting to be done much more speedily than it has been in recent Assembly elections.
This might seem a slightly odd thing to write about. I know that it’s not the most important issue facing the next Welsh Assembly election, by some way. Nonetheless, I hope that this is something that the powers-that-be consider. It is one (albeit very small) way in which I think we could make the next National Assembly election a little better, whatever the result.