It has been a strange couple of days.
I spent the whole of Thursday as a presiding officer for my local polling station. From seven in the morning until ten o’clock at night, my team of three people (myself and two poll clerks) managed the voting process. We checked people against the register of electors, issued them with a ballot paper and helped them to post their votes in the ballot box.
We were running three elections at the same time – electing a Member of Parliament, electing councillors to serve on the borough council and councillors to sit on the town council. That meant that most voters received three ballot papers and posted them in three corresponding ballot boxes.
It was an exhausting and exhilarating day. What made it most special were the people we met. These were all our neighbours – people who live within a ten minute walk from each other.
When the doors opened at 7.00 we had a rush of commuters wanting to vote before catching their train to London.
Later in the morning we had parents taking their kids to school. Then mums pushing buggies of younger children and babies.
There was a wave of retired people after 10 in the morning. Joggers and cyclists in dayglow Lycra. A handful of builders in paint-splashed jeans.
An innovation this year were a number of dog walkers, complete with canine companions. The funniest sight of the day was when one particular friendly mutt decided to lick as many legs as he could find. One elderly jogger had the surprise of his life whilst marking his ballet paper when he found the back of his knees being licked. I don’t imagine that was an experience that he had been expecting that day.
My lovely wife, most definitely not a dog-lover, nearly jumped through the roof when the same pooch assaulted her ankles. Sorry, but that’s my job.
The big crush of the day came between 6 and 9 in the evening. We had queues stretching out of the door and into the car park.
Most of the people were met were lovely. They were grateful to us for the job we were doing and were understanding when there was a long queue. There were several older people who had struggled to walk to the polling station with a strong sense of duty that this was what they should be doing.
Then there were the sour ones, with nothing but complaints and sarcasm. Apparently, it was all a waste of time. None of the candidates had knocked on their door, or were worth voting for anyway. The polling station was too hot or too cold. The three elections were too confusing. They didn’t like queueing. The car park was too small.
I appreciate that you might not like the political process, but please don’t take it out on a poll clerk who has been working almost non-stop for the last 15 hours, okay?
Polling over, we sealed the ballot boxes, cleared the polling station, filled out endless forms and drove to the count. And around 11.20 at night, tried to think about eating an evening meal. Knackered, pumped-up, full of stories, astonished by what was happening on the television.
Yesterday we worked at one of the local counts. Over nine hours of sorting pieces of paper by hand, meticulously counting, checking and re-checking. There were over 800 of us adding up crosses on pieces of paper. And I couldn’t help thinking that it would all be so much easier and cheaper if it was computerised. Would it really be beyond the wit of man or woman to replace the ballot paper and stubby pencil with a touchscreen and spreadsheet?
Where election day had been about the public, the count was all about the politicians. They watched us as we counted the votes, keeping an eagle-eye on us to make sure that not a single X went in the wrong place.
And here again we saw a huge difference in approach. Most of the politicians were friendly and appreciative. They respected the fact that a large number of their constituents were working hard in front of them. The best of them chatted to us, thanked us for our hard work, commiserated with us for the long hours we were putting in.
But, also again, we saw the sour contingent. They complained that they weren’t being told when the counts would be completed. They nit-picked over the details. Some alternately complained that they couldn’t hear the announcements (when their seat was being called), but then talked over the announcements of other people’s seats. We had a flounce of hooray Henriettas swilling glasses of wine, ignoring the count staff as if they were lower-class peasants and arguing with their political rivals.
Friday night finished for us after 10 o’clock in the evening. It was the second successive day when we hadn’t managed to eat an evening meal. We had worked for more than 27 hours in two days.
On Friday night, I can’t remember going to bed or falling asleep or being asleep. I have no idea how logs sleep but if the proverb is correct that would be a good approximation of my sleeping patterns that night. Very log-like.
Now it is Saturday and the polls are behind us. We have been able to unaccustomed things like reading the newspaper, answering emails and … shock! … having meals.
The overwhelming impression is positive. On the whole, the system worked. We carried out an open and fair election. Everyone who wanted to vote, got a chance to vote. The votes were counted and checked as accurately as humanly possible. Democracy was not only done, it was seen to be done.
And the majority of people we met were honest and decent, both the politicians and the public. People I am proud to call my neighbours. I have a special feeling of satisfaction that in some little way I have been able to serve the community.
It is a shame about the 1 or 2% who came into the process pre-disposed to be sour and negative. They didn’t expect to enjoy the process and – guess what? – they probably didn’t. There is always something to complain about, if you look hard enough.
And I suppose that is a metaphor for politics as a whole, and even for the wider community. The vast majority of people are not the problem – it’s just the last 1 or 2% of negative souls. Unfortunately, they are the ones that we tend to remember.
For me, the images I will take away are the lady in her nineties who so determined to vote for herself. Every step took the same amount of effort for her as it would take a fit person to run 100 metres.
That, and the astonished look on a male jogger’s face after a dog had licked the back of his legs.