Returning officer counts down to voting night

Chris Highcock is ready for polling day. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Chris Highcock is ready for polling day. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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SAY what you like about Edinburgh, it’s a city which likes a bit of ­suffrage.

There’s a certain frisson in the air come election time, a palpable feeling of potential, undimmed by the recent ­decision to stop political ­parties from adorning the city’s streets with their cardboard and string lamppost posters.

Even at European elections, when turnouts are always notoriously low, the people get out to vote – 41.6 per cent at the last one – while at general elections some constituent parts of the city have been known to register turnouts of 74 per cent. Children have even been known to play “vote, vote, vote” in school playgrounds.

So it’s hardly surprising that the independence referendum is likely to be the biggest show of Edinburgh’s desire to vote yet. A turnout of 80 per cent is expected, it could be more. And the latest statistics show that 377,413 are registered to vote in Edinburgh for the referendum – a jump of 36,259 since May – which means a lot of rubber thimbles will be required when it comes to counting ballot papers on the evening of The Big Day. It’s no wonder then that ever since the date of September 18, 2014 was announced – a mere 18 months ago – the people in charge of conducting Scotland’s elections have been meeting and planning and training and sharpening hundreds of thousands of little pencils and tying them to polling booth chains.

Well, perhaps not the latter but without doubt it’s a military operation which has swung into action to ensure that the referenda process is robust and has more integrity than the Dalai Lama on a silent vigil. Sue Bruce is Edinburgh’s chief returning officer at normal election times, but it is Chris Highcock the senior depute returning officer who has been in charge of the day to day administration of putting everything in place to deliver the city’s referendum day; to make sure that everyone who is registered to vote is able to vote, that every vote is counted, that the final answer of the votes is delivered with no ambiguity.

He is also supporting Scotland’s Chief Counting Officer for the referendum – Falkirk Council’s chief executive Mary Pitcaithly – as her depute counting officer and has overseen the governance of the whole project, planning the national count and co-ordinating electoral activity across the country

“Without doubt it’s a big job. We put in place all the polling places, train all the staff, count all the votes and in Edinburgh alone it’s a massive undertaking as there is a substantial number – 377,413 – of registered voters. In fact Edinburgh is probably the biggest election area in Scotland because ­Glasgow always has a lower turnout so we end up dealing with more votes and therefore have a bigger count.

“We are working on a basis of an 80 per cent turnout, we need to be able to plan for that. Our focus is people’s confidence in the result, whatever it might be. That will be based on confidence in the process and the people delivering it. It’s a huge exercise but people need to be able to trust what’s happening, that the process is robust.”

Chris, who has been working in election management full-time since 2008, shudders at the mention of Edinburgh’s “missing votes” scandal in 1999. Then 1500 voting papers went uncounted, a further 2000 were counted but not recorded and there was severe criticism of the arrangements at the Meadowbank count which was left unfinished as exhausted tellers walked out before the results were all in.

“Nothing like that could happen again,” he says ­confidently. “Our processes are robust, our polling staff are very well trained, they know their job and the responsibility it carries.”

With great responsibility comes a fee – at least it does if you’re at the top of the counting offcer tree. Mary Pitcaithly for instance will be paid £39,000 for her role in organising the referendum, Sue Bruce £16,777 (although she’s been known to donate such fees to Edinburgh charities). Chris though does not move in such rarified circles. His work as secretary to the Electoral Management Board for Scotland is not paid – and the hours he works there instead of the council are reimbursed.

Edinburgh as a whole though has £720,790 – at most – to spend on getting the referendum organised, including Sue Bruce’s fee. “The amount is for the costs of the entire event,” says Chris. “Hiring polling places, printing ballot papers, printing and posting postal votes, hiring the count venue, equipping the count hall for the world’s media, employing and training more than 850 polling staff and 500 count staff. This all needs to be ­justified and claimed from the Scottish Government.”

The organisation has been phenomenal. “We have the same number of polling places [buildings] as we do at a general election but inside each place is a different number of polling stations and every station has a ballot box to manage. In May there were 240 polling stations this time we’ll have 383 set up across the city which all need to be staffed and of course they all need to be trained before that, all face-to-face, so there have been 36 different training stations.

“Polling staff have a very important function, for most voters they’re the face of the election. We’re very confident about how we train the staff and the importance of their role to maintain the integrity of the process.”

The day starts for polling staff at 6am, the doors open at 7am and close at 10pm, 900 minutes in which to vote. If there are queues near closing time though, people will still get to vote.

“We’re expecting thousands more people than normal,” admits Chris. “The Electoral Registration Office is coping but there are a huge number of new people who registered – people just turning up at the office to register in person out at South Gyle, which is not the sort of place you just happen to be passing. There have been times when there have been queues.

“So we have planned for queues at the polling places. People point to Sheffield in 2010 when a lot of people who weren’t in by 10pm with a ballot paper couldn’t vote. The legislation has changed to say that if you’re in the queue before 10pm you can still vote.

“We will monitor how things are going through the day and we’re staffed up in certain significant polling stations – we’ll check how many people have been through at 10am, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm and if we get to that time and realise a lot of people haven’t voted we’ll put in extra staff for the last two hours.

“People don’t flow through steadily, more before work and after work, so in some polling places we have an evening shift of extra staff to come on. We obviously know the pattern of polling from through the years.”

Of course many votes have already been cast. By last Friday 76 per cent of the 81,648 postal votes sent out were back.

“Once they come back they all have to be verified – that is making sure the person who signs it is the same person who asked for it, so need to check all signatures and dates of birth, so 50 people a day for ten days will be doing that job,” says Chris.

“At Ingliston there will be 100 or so boxes of postal votes ready to be counted and that will start at 10pm even if the polling stations are still open.”

There have been fears raised of potential intimidation of voters at polling stations – especially as some Yes supporters are encouraging large marches of voters descending on polling places at the same time. But every eventuality is covered.

“The police are very much involved and any areas where there’s a build up of voters or queues or incidents, the police will be involved very quickly. People want to be able to vote safely and easily, free of intimidation, without worrying about getting into the place.

“We think it will be a day of mass participation and high spirits, we hope it will be more a carnival atmosphere.”

He adds: “People from either side will be able to stand outside polling places just as political parties do in general elections – as long as they’re well behaved. They are not allowed to be intimidating or to force their views on the voting public as they go in.

“If someone is voting and wearing a campaign badge that’s fine, but if there are any campaign organisations coming into polling places we have to be careful what they’re wearing or saying, as they’re supposed to be campaign free zones – they’re allowed to come in and monitor what’s happening, but not campaign.

“We’re hoping to make it clear to people how to vote – that is to put a single X on the paper and that’s the safest way to make sure the vote counts. We don’t want people doing anything which might invalidate their vote or not make their intentions clear.

“We are aware there will be a lot of voters who haven’t voted before, and some of them will be the 16 and 17-year-olds, but there will be many who have registered for the first time. We want to make sure they’re happy about the process.”

Come 10pm – barring queues – the polls will close, the staff will fill out their records to show how many ballot papers have been handed out, then seal the box.

Observers can watch to make sure they are satisfied all is correct. The ballot boxes are then collected and taken to Ingliston. Then the counting begins.

The result is expected “around breakfast time on the 19th – depending on when you eat breakfast,” he laughs. “Planes, boats and vans are all being used to make sure ballot boxes are opened and counted on the night across Scotland.

“We’re aware of carrying a huge responsibility and need to deliver a referendum result people have confidence in.”

Postal votes start arriving

More than three-quarters of Edinburgh postal voters have already had their say in the independence referendum.

City council staff have begun verifying more than 62,000 ballot papers which have already arrived ahead of Thursday’s count.

A total of 81,648 people have applied for a postal vote – with 76 per cent having already made their choice.

Across the Capital, more than 377,000 residents are named on the electoral register.

Council chief executive Sue Bruce, the Capital’s counting officer, warned voters not to wait until the last minute before putting their ballot papers in the post.

She said: “I am pleased see such a high turnout with less than a week to go, but it is essential that all those who have not yet returned their packs do so as soon as possible.”