Acting as Returning Officer in the General Election

One of the few remaining powers of the High Sheriff is to act as Returning Officer in a General Election. Once the date for the election had been announced, I chose to exercise my reserved powers and declare the result for the St Albans constituency. This looked as if it was going to be a marginal seat, with the Conservative party candidate, who had been in post for 14 years, being challenged by a Liberal Democrat rival.

Richard Taylor the Under Sheriff and I met with the Electoral Services team to understand how the postal vote papers were issued, polling stations arranged, reconciliations done and arrangements made for the count. We were told that BBC and Sky News had already said they were sending camera crews to record the result, which was estimated would be ready to be declared at about 3.30am, and which the polls had decided would be close.

Once voting had finished at 10pm, the boxes travelled under escort to where the voting papers were counted – in this case the Batchwood Sports complex on the edge of St Albans. The boxes were allocated to different tables to be sorted, counted into piles of 10, then 100 and then 500 votes. Those counting were watched carefully by agents and scrutineers for the candidates, and as each pile of 10 was counted a small card in the colour of the candidate’s party was paper clipped to the front. As the time went on, it was possible to see which piles looked biggest and to guess what the result might be.

Richard and I had arrived at about 12.30am and, after several tables had to recount their papers so that the numbers matched against those who had been recorded as voting, and spoilt papers had been identified and rejected, it was finally time to consult the agents for the candidates and show them the provisional results. If these are close or not agreed, then a re-count can be requested. Fortunately, the provisional result was agreed and so I was taken aside and shown them privately, and got ready to read them out.

I had been told that I must not make a mistake when declaring the results, as whatever I said would count! Just before 4am, I put on my Court Dress and carefully read out the number of each votes for each candidate, the number of rejected votes, the total number of those who had voted and the percentage turnout. Finally, I declared the winner and invited the candidates to speak in turn.

It was fascinating to be allowed behind the scenes and to understand something of the enormous logistical exercise required to manage an election. Even though the system is not automated in any way and relies on human counting, there are sufficient checks and scrutiny for everyone to have confidence that the process is fair. The Electoral Services team did a great job and I was privileged to have had a small part in an historic day.