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Inside the Count: General Election News


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I counted the Edinburgh votes while you slept, so that you didn't have to. Now, obviously, I want to tell you all about it.

Picture the scene: a long line of local council and government employees, battling against the wind as they traipse through the large parking lot shared between Edinburgh Airport and the Royal Highland Centre. It's just past 8PM, the polls haven't yet closed, but we aren't even the first ones there.

It's a massive operation, over 800 staff working overnight, and many more who had already pre-counted the postal votes beginning at 9AM. One person working the count with me had been at that pre-count, and left with me at 4.30AM, so by the time they returned home, it would have been an almost 24 hour turnaround! This is really quite indicative of the dedication that makes an operation like this possible.

It truly is a mammoth event, the first thing I thought when I walked into the Central Hall of the Royal Highland Centre (beyond noting the scent of manure, a leftover from the Highland Show two weeks before) was how much organising it must take to get this up and running. Only a month to get going; ballots needing printed, then shipped; polling and count venues needing staff; people to distribute boxes of ballots from all over a city back to just one venue - the list goes on.

The Central Hall is a sea of tables adorned with rubber bands and post-its, organised by constituencies. Everyone is donned in hi-vis and name tags, all with very specific roles. In the middle of every constituency camp is a long table for those counting unused ballots. Their role is to count how many ballot papers remain in the pads that were sent out to each constituency. Literally just counting pads of blank ballots, for hours, so that the numbers at the end of the night would all match up.

I was there to count the submitted ballots. Despite the postal votes being pre-counted, we still had to recount those to confirm numbers, and we couldn't do this until the polling closed, at 10PM. Over a very tinny loud tannoy, we were told the postal ballots could now be opened and counted, and securely closed bins were emptied (dumped) onto our tables. Our rubber thimbles on, we got to work, counting in bundles of 50. Easy enough. You know what wasn't so easy? Having electoral observers hover over you, desperately trying to parse how many votes there are for their party's candidate. Some tables have more than one observer, furiously tallying, arms going up when their sheet is full, people running around trying to establish the exit polls the electorate are so desperate for. It's all very intimidating, and we aren't allowed to speak to them, at all. All this, and without any caffeine yet in sight.

Soon after, the ballots from the polling places start to roll in. They don't all come at the same time - Edinburgh West (the constituency we were in) comes first, thick and fast. Still, with these, the observers are breathing over us, eyes wide. They're not just there to figure out the votes, they're also there to make sure nothing odd is going on in the counting of them. These are completely unseen submitted ballots, so they're watching even more intently, as we unfold and straighten the votes, again putting into bundles of 50. At one point, I unfold a very spoiled ballot, and the shock of it causes me to lose count. I sigh, forced to begin my count again, and the observer at our table laughs. Behind us, those dressed in red cheer, but we at the counting tables have no idea why, and we're not allowed to discuss it. It's an odd atmosphere.

Before we ever even reach the count, we have to sign a privacy agreement, so unfortunately as funny or as interesting as some of the spoiled ballots were, I can't share any of the contents. I can say that some read like essays, and some were a little more illustrative... The hardest part is not being allowed to comment on them at all, although raised eyebrows and pursed lips communicate just as well.

Interestingly, the second count, (which begins after a very sad sandwich at about 2AM) determining the number of votes for each candidate, is when the observers back off a little. I suppose they feel they've sussed it all out by then. When I left, able to read the news, I learn that this is because the exit polls showed a devastating loss for the SNP, and just by scanning the votes as we counted them, they could see it was true.

It's not until 4AM when some start to get to the end of the process. First, doubtful papers have to be adjudicated. Is this ballot paper with writing all over it spoiled, even though there is a clear X in a box? It's for them to decide, but I can confirm that the candidates and their teams do absolutely see your paper if you've done something funky with it.

We're all exhausted; kept awake by the strange energy in the room, one coffee in the small hours, and the cup of boiled sweets that we're only now picking at, despite them being there from the start. It reminded me a little of folding and glueing Avon samples with my nan when I was younger, fast paced and high potential for paper cuts, but nothing as delicious as Werther's. Most of the 800+ staff have finished their count by now, or are very close to it, some tables recounting four or five times. Once your constituency is called, you can be dismissed, so we're all desperately looking to the stage in the corner of the hall, waiting for someone to go up and announce.

I left at 4.30, with a long way to get back down to Leith, not even knowing the results of my own constituency yet! On my way home, I was trying to decide if I would ever do that again, and I truly cannot tell you. I only really did it because I have a terribly unflattering trait: being nosy as fuck.

As a final note, because I'm no longer there, and I can absolutely make political statements... My only regret is not hanging about until later, to watch Joanna Cherry fall.

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