Poll Dancing – Sunday 2nd May 2010

Posted on May 2, 2010


This month hundreds of people in Southgate will be giving up their free time in support of a cause they believe in. They won’t be asking you to sponsor them, although many will have donated their own money. They won’t be presented with a medal for the distance they cover, although some will have walked more than twenty six miles, nor will they receive any individual recognition for their efforts. It may surprise you to learn that most of the people you will have met during the election campaign will have been our own neighbours, out supporting their chosen party or candidate.

Commentators habitually deride low turnouts yet consistently fail to recognise the signficant impact made by this band of hard working volunteers who keep the wheels of our democracy turning. Studies by Brunel University show that away from the razamataz of this year’s TV debates, the air-brushing and sound-bytes, what will engage the electorate most successfully will still be meeting real people on the doorstep. ‘Low-tech’ still works despite new “viral” campaigning (like You Tube, Twitter and MumsNet).

Volunteers from all parties follow a similar plan and, as a fair-weather volunteer, I thought I would share with you some of the things that go on behind the scenes.

Step 1 – Raise Money!

Work will have begun long before the start of the campaign to raise sufficient funds to finance the leaflets, the posters, rosettes, calling cards, websites and bunting. The media revels in big donations by business magnates or trade unions but most political parties receive the majority of their funds from individual donations and fundraising – (just like our church).

For the past ten years there have been maximum limits on expenditure during the four week election campaign. In 2010 a new law came into effect which limits expenditure in the build up to the campaign (to prevent a pre-poll spending spree by those candidates who have the means to do so). Together, these limits mean that a party fielding a full complement of local government and parliamentary candidates could spend a maximum of £55,000 in each of  our local constituencies (our parish stretches across two) from 1st January to 6th May. This equates to about 79p per voter.

Apart from a limited allowance for delivery costs for election communication from parliamentary candidates, there is no public subsidy for the activities of political parties in the UK (although of course the cost of running polling stations is met by the taxpayer – an estimated £80m for each UK-wide poll). It is therefore up to local volunteers to raise the £55,000 needed for each campaign. That’s a lot of garden parties, quiz nights and raffles – which are an ongoing activity, especially as there have been elections in four of the past five years in London.

Step 2 – Select your candidates and publicise your message!

Each party has a different method of selecting their candidates, ranging from centralised systems to more local decision making by party members. When a party is challenging an incumbent they tend to select parliamentary candidates early – some years before the likely election. Local government candidates are usually selected up to a year before the poll. Of course candidates do not have to be affiliated with a political party – anyone over the age of eighteen and who is registered to vote is eligible to stand as an independent.

The limit on election spending means it would not be appropriate for candidates to post letters and leaflets to the electorate, even if they could afford to do so. This means the majority of literature is hand delivered. With about 37,000 houses in each of our local constituencies, that’s a lot of ground to cover ! Most parties operate a delivery network, with volunteers each taking responsibility for groups of one or two streets. I once saw an experienced deliverer holding a wooden spoon, which I later discovered was used to force leaflets through letter boxes guarded by dogs!

The taxpayer provides funds for the delivery (not the printing costs) of one piece of election communication from each parliamentary candidate to every registered voter by Royal Mail (“The Election Address”). The fact that there are often two or three people registered to vote in each household can be exploited by parties who have the funds to print more than one leaflet. This is why you may have received different leaflets addressed to different members of your family from the same party.

Step 3 – Identify your supporters

The limited financial and people resources available mean it is crucial for parties to identify their likely supporters in each constituency and, as the campaign progresses, focus their communication on them. This is done by teams of canvassers equipped with a copy of the electoral roll, who go door-to-door (or use the telephone) to identify likely voting intention and build up a “pledge base” – a list of likely supporters.

A common complaint is that people rarely see anyone from a political party on their doorstep. Given that on average canvassers only get to speak to someone at one in three of the houses they visit and, as there are around 37,000 houses in each of our local constituencies, canvassing teams would need to call at 3,900 homes each day of the four week campaign in order to speak to at least one person from every house. That is an impossible task and  means that canvassing begins almost a year before the date of the election. Even so, most parties rely on ‘canvas marks’ from previous elections as a basis for targeting their resources. Areas with a high population turnover (due to a large number of rented homes) are likely to be canvassed regularly, as are new housing developments. Undecided voters are also more likely to be visited by canvassing teams. Canvassers usually put a card through the letter-box of each house they have visited.

Step 4 – Encourage your supporters to vote!

The climax of the campaign is of course poll day, when the meticulously planned Get Out The Vote (GOTV) operation begins. This year, the election is on Thursday 6th May. Elections in the UK are held on Thursday by tradition (not law). For some volunteers, polling day itself will begin long before polling stations open at 7am. In the early morning, a Dawn Raid team will begin delivering leaflets reminding people that “Today is Polling Day”. As it will still be dark when they begin, it is too time consuming to deliver leaflets to the specific houses in each street where their ‘pledges’ live, so they focus on their areas of strongest support so as to remind as few opposition supporters as possible that it is polling day!

From 7am, most polling stations will be manned by one or more ‘Tellers’, usually on a rota basis. Their job is to ask you for your electoral roll number (on your poll card) or your address. Tellers are not allowed to engage in any political discussions, because “campaigning” on the site of a polling station is illegal. The information collected by the Tellers is sent back to a central committee room and put into a computer. By gathering the electoral roll number of each person who has visited each polling station, volunteers can reduce the list of people they need to remind to vote later in the day. If you have ever been canvassed, your likely voting intention will have been recorded and you are therefore likely to be ‘knocked up’ either on the doorstep or by telephone to remind you that it is polling day. Many people do not realise that by giving your electoral roll number to tellers at polling stations you reduce the likelihood of being bothered later in the day!

From about five o clock “knocking up” teams will hit the streets, armed with lists of supporters (except those who have been recorded by the Tellers as having visited the polling station already). Their job is to spend the next five hours knocking doors and encouraging their supporters to go and cast their vote. The knocking up teams usually start at the point furthest away from each polling station and move closer in, one street at a time.

When the polls close, another team of volunteers will head to the count. Some elections (like the European Election and London Mayoral Elections) are counted electronically, but the General and Local Elections are still manual – council staff are paid overtime to physically count each ballot paper.

The count usually happens in a central venue for each borough. Candidates appoint ‘Counting Agents’ to observe the process. There is strict security to ensure that they do not come into contact with ballot boxes or the ballot papers. The count begins by verifying the number of papers in each ballot box with the number of ballot papers issued by the Presiding Officer at each station.

After verification, the count begins – the bundles are split up, counted and grouped into bundles for each candidate in the centre of the hall. This deceptively tedious and mechanical process is incredibly dramatic, as candidates can see their support stacking up throughout the evening;  the hiss of the counting process and the murmur of anxious candidates conferring with their agents adding to the tension.

Counting Agents observe the council officers as they count the ballot papers and have the right to challenge any mistakes. Disputed ballots (it’s amazing how many people choose to put something other than an ‘x’ in the box) are put into a separate pile and are reviewed by the Election Agents and Returning Officer at the end of the count, by which point, in a hotley contested seat, the atmosphere is electric – and after which the Declaration can seem something of an anti-climax (particularly as those in the hall will have been notified of the result some time before the TV cameras are ready to record the speeches).

During this election campaign, the call for us all to become more involved in civic life has been made by most parties – but the reality is that volunteers have been at the centre of our political system for decades. From fundraising, to delivering leaflets, canvassing, telling and acting as counting agents, it is volunteers who undertake the bulk of the work behind the scenes. Whether you choose to vote or not, I hope you will spare a thought for those who have been working hard all year round to keep our democratic process alive and kicking in Southgate! 


More information on how UK elections are run and managed can be found on the Electoral Commission website : www.electoralcommission.org.uk

 A full list of parliamentary and local government candidates standing in our parish can be found on the websites of Enfield Council (020 8379 1000) http://www.enfield.gov.uk/info/362/elections-voting/1013/current_elections/1 or Barnet Council (020 8359 2000)  http://www.barnet.gov.uk/index/council-democracy/democracy-elections/elections.htm (depending where you live). Local Government Candidates will be listed by ward. To find out which ward you live in, visit www.writetothem.com or contact the respective Council by telephone. 

Polling Stations will be open on Thursday 6th May from 7am to 10pm. You will have the opportunity to elect a Member of Parliament and, on a separate ballot paper, three Local Councillors. You do not require a polling card to vote but must be on the register of electors to do so.