In many democracies, Vote Counting at polling stations is an important exercise. It is the counting of votes by all voters who exercised their voting right at the polling station. This process is at the heart of elections and helps candidates to know the number of votes they obtained in each polling station.
The main advantages of vote counting at polling stations are speed and cost effectiveness. As the vote counting can start as soon as the polling station closes, interim results can be released faster than at a counting centre. For a poll of four hundred voters, counting of categorical ballots could take less than two hours. Furthermore, since the same staff receive, count, and transport the ballots from and to the local office, fewer personnel are involved in the overall process. This reduces the pressure of logistics, eliminating the need to identify counting centres, train additional personnel, develop or procure specific materials. Physical requirements are mostly identical to those used for the voting procedures: table, chairs, forms, pencils, calculator, fasteners, seals, etc. (see Voting Arrangements for the explanation of the voting arrangements and Ensuring Readiness.)
Since the ballot boxes are kept at the same place where the vote took place, the same poll workers, national and international electoral observers (see Observation of Voting and Counts for further information on election observation), party representatives and candidates stay during the counting process. This makes supervision easier for the person in charge of the polling station. Counting at polling stations indirectly promotes participation of the population since the process is not only closer to their home, but they can actually watch it, making the results more tangible. The process then tends to be regarded as open, accessible, and legitimate. Not only does it demonstrate transparency, but it can also enhance public confidence, especially if poll workers are carrying out their duties in the same area in which they live.
Opportunities for fraud will always exist, but safeguards can be developed to make them difficult when votes are counted at a polling station and transmitted in duplicate to local offices. Since the ballot boxes do not move from the polling station for counting, there is less risk than when the ballot boxes are transported to a counting centre first.
One disadvantage of counting at polling stations is the long hours required of the personnel involved in the process. It is quite common to see polls opening at 6:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m., followed by a two hour or longer counting process. This adds up to a very long working day for poll workers. Since they are not allowed to leave the polling station during the day, this may increase the possibility of mistakes when the time comes to count the ballots and fill out the forms. To avoid this, food, water, and sanitary facilities should be provided.
In terms of security, it is harder to protect many polling stations than one or several counting centres. This can be an important issue in highly contested elections taking place in a violent area or politically charged environment. However, this factor may not be important if security is already provided during the taking of the vote.
The presence at the polling station of well-known personalities from the community can be a source of intimidation for some workers in the polling station during the count.
In some circumstances, counting at a polling station may also affect the secrecy of the vote, once the results are known. Post-election intimidation and threats to voters from an entire polling station area can be made by political parties, if it is known that nearly all voters voted in a particular manner. This factor is minimized, but not entirely eliminated, in the case of counting centres based on electoral districts.
There is a risk that the counting criteria for rejecting ballots and reporting results will be inconsistent from polling station to polling station. The risk of these problems arising decreases with the extent of detailed training and instruction provided.
An important consideration is that a reliable communication system is required for transmission of polling station statements of the votes. Depending on the number of polling stations, the local office may need the capacity in their communication system to handle several polling station results coming in at the same time. If a system failure occurs, then all the results are delayed. This affects the speed of releasing the results, which may generate uncertainty in the political environment. In some countries where telecommunications networks are not well developed, this can be a major problem leading to mistrust of the system and accusations of manipulation or fraud.
Vote Counting Procedures at Polling Stations
In general, the major process components of vote counting at a polling station are:
- opening the ballot box,
- sorting ballots, and
- reconciling and counting the ballots so the results can be transmitted to the local office or the headquarters of the electoral management body which adds them together.
Following the closing of the polls, ballot boxes are kept at the polling station for vote counting. The following procedures are executed:
- recording the number of unused ballots and spoiled ballots. (Spoiled ballots are those that a voter has inadvertently ‘spoiled’ by marking it incorrectly, and then exchanged for a new blank ballot, or ballots that are improperly printed, torn, soiled, or otherwise marked in a way that could be linked to an individual voter and does not guarantee vote secrecy.)
- determining the total of number of voters who voted according to the voters list;
- unsealing the ballot box and counting the number of ballots;
- reconciling the number of ballots in the box with the number of voters according to the voters’ list or other record of the total number of persons who cast ballots;
- if they reconcile, sorting the ballots by candidate or party and counting them; and
- setting aside challenged ballots and determining acceptance or rejection according to established rules.
The statement of the vote is compiled, signed, and transmitted to a local office before being transmitted to the national level. Representatives of political parties and national and international electoral observers can copy the results. There is no interruption in the process until the statement of the vote of the polling station is released and sent to the local office of the electoral management body. Once the counting process is completed, electoral materials are taken to a local office for secure storage.
Interim results are also sent to the national level and publicized. Special measures and procedures need to be followed during the entire counting process in case results are challenged. As with all other aspects of conducting an election, there are administrative considerations which are directly or indirectly related to vote counting at polling stations. Each of these procedural components has particularities and subtleties associated with its respective processes.
At the closing of the polling station, authorized persons and poll workers stay in the polling station and start the counting process. In most cases, it takes less than two hours to complete for a poll of approximately four hundred voters. For efficiency reasons, all poll workers assigned to the polling station should assist the poll official responsible for a ballot box in the counting process.
A first reconciliation of ballots may be done before opening the ballot box. Spoiled ballots are counted and put aside. Once the ballot box is emptied of its contents, the validity of each ballot is verified and sorted into different piles. The votes are then counted into valid ballots (by candidate/political party/option) and rejected ballots (a ballot found in the ballot box is rejected because it was improperly marked, or is not marked at all when a mark is required). Clear rules of interpretation or guidelines regarding the basis for rejecting a ballot should be provided to the poll officials in advance, to facilitate the decision-making process regarding rejections.
Representatives of political parties/candidates/options should be able to examine the ballots, and if they do not agree with the decision of the poll official, be allowed to make formal objections that can form the basis for contesting the results of the count.
Using a count sheet, all valid ballots are recorded, as well as spoiled and rejected ballots. All ballots are counted and none are destroyed. A verification of the count and a last reconciliation should be done before completing the statement of the vote. The ballot box can then be re-sealed (with the new seal number duly noted), and appropriate counting documentation can either be enclosed or attached to the ballot box in a separate sealed envelope.
The results recorded on the statement of the vote will be communicated by the poll official to the local/national office of the electoral management body by telephone or other means. Representatives of political parties/candidates/ options as well as national and international electoral observers, if present, can make a copy of the statement. The count at the polling station itself is now over, and all the electoral materials may be transported to a secure local storage room. In the event of a recount, all the prepared documents are needed, so elaborate precautions, and sealing the ballot box contents, are important.
The local/national office of the electoral management body totals the results transmitted by all polling stations of the electoral district, as well as results of any special ballots, advance polls, mobile polling stations, etc. Interim results should include all types of ballots, so as to avoid discrepancy between interim results and final results. In addition, these results should be for each political party/candidate/option and posted on a wall, board, or spreadsheet, as they become available.
Unofficial interim results should be publicized as soon as possible. This is often done by the media or political parties, leaving the announcement of final results to the electoral management body. In the following days, the local offices of the electoral management body may perform the final count and prepare the official results. If results are challenged, additional procedures may apply.
Appropriate training is essential to be able to implement such vote counting procedures at polling stations. Training requirements, as well as all other administrative considerations, need to be included in the budget for the election or referendum.
An important aspect of free and fair elections is the non-partisanship of poll workers. Once a person agrees to work as a poll worker on election day, he also agrees to be non-partisan throughout the entire process. Numerous jurisdictions require that all poll workers sign an oath in order to make this point clear, documented, and understood by all personnel involved (see Oath of a Poll Clerk – St Vincent and the Grenadines).
The importance of non-partisanship remains critical during the counting process. Poll workers should not make any remarks or mention any personal political affiliation or affinity, nor wear or use any partisan materials. Since the poll official will have to handle disputes over any rejected ballots, he will be the first person to deal will representatives of political parties/candidates/ options. This person will also have to take the final decision in validating or rejecting any ballot. Neutrality and non-partisanship are imperative in this decision-making process. In many jurisdictions, poll officials can be legally prosecuted if their work is proved to be partisan.
Political parties and candidates should always be represented in polling stations and the rules must be the same for all political parties and candidates. Usually, political parties’ candidates designate a representative to be present in each polling station to witness the voting and counting processes. However, it remains the choice of each party as to whether they send a representative to every polling station or not. Many jurisdictions consider their presence to be essential to ensure integrity, guarantee consistency, and provide witnesses to the transparency of the process. Indeed, when the time comes to make an important decision during the voting and counting process, such as modifications to previously completed forms, then all party representatives involved should sign the forms to demonstrate that they are informed, and agree with the decision. Careful application of such procedures provides tangible evidence that the rules are consistent and the process transparent.
Finally, the electoral management body needs to record the ‘history’ of each ballot box and seal numbers where applicable, from initial distribution to final collection and storage. The electoral management body should be able to retrace the history of each ballot box, from the moment it leaves the local office of the electoral management body until it returns with the counted ballots. A proper audit trail will allow the electoral management body to maintain full control, and ensure that possibilities of fraud via ballot box tampering are extremely limited, and can be detected if attempted. Numbering each polling station, and using the same number for the corresponding ballot box, is one simple method of implementing such a control system. Additionally, the same number should appear on each form used at the polling station. The importance of recording the history of each ballot box (recording ballots book number, serial number of the seals, ballot box number, etc.) becomes clear in cases of judicial recount.