Monday, 4 May 2015

Elections - 5 things about working in a polling station you might not know

Attribution: Alex Lee (originally posted to Flickr as Voting in Hackney) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

For those in the UK, it's nearly election day.  On Thursday 7th May 2015 we'll get the opportunity to vote and decide who should be our MPs for the next few years.

I'm considering going to bed early and then getting up early to catch some of the results as they are announced - looking at the Telegraph website it appears as though most of the results come out from about 3am onwards.

I've always been interested in the elections (lots of statistics - I love numbers!), but this one is different for me, because it's the first one in a few years that I'm not working in a polling station - usually I'm one of those people sat behind a table in a polling station, dishing out ballot papers and ensuring that the poll goes smoothly.  Here's a few interesting bits about working in a polling station:

(Disclaimer: The below is purely based on my past knowledge and experiences.  It is not sanctioned by the Electoral Commission, or other authorities, as current, common or good practice)

5 - It's a long day

In each polling station, there is a minimum of a Poll Clerk and a Presiding Officer.  The Presiding Officer is generally there by 6.15am, to get ready for the election starting at 7am, and quite often the night before they'll stop by the station to make sure that the keys provided actually work.

We'll work through to 10pm, when polls close, and then do the paperwork, which takes about 20-30 minutes - quite often some of the paperwork we can start before polls close (labelling envelopes etc), but there's always still a good amount to do after 10 with packing the station away, and just making sure everything is done correctly.

After that the Presiding Officer gets to take the votes and paperwork to a counting centre (for me it was always one or other of the local leisure centres).  It's not unusual to get home after midnight if you've had a polling station some distance away from the leisure centre.

Don't feel too sorry for us, though - there is an elections team backing us up who coordinate the whole thing, have been planning it for weeks and have to do even longer hours, getting the ballot boxes, voting slips and paperwork out to the polling staff, issuing training, handling problems from several hundred polling stations as they arise, and then afterwards they'll be in the counting stations checking on everything at that end.

4 - When polls open, you can vote.

This sounds obvious, but even though we're there bright and early, sometimes it's a rush to be 100% completely ready for 7am.  We have a lot of different papers to organise and arrange, signs to put up, booths, tables, chairs etc to arrange, so the staff may get the bare minimum up by 7.00am and work on after 7.00am getting the rest ready, so please be understanding that if you do stroll in at 7.01am it might just take the polling staff a few seconds to double-check the exact procedure for issuing a ballot paper to you - the absolute last thing anyone wants to do is get something wrong!

I do recall on one occasion having a problem in that we didn't have an electricity connection at the time of polls opening (so you couldn't see a thing inside the polling station), and the first vote of the day was actually cast outside the station by the lights of the Poll Clerks' car - not wholly ideal but it worked, and to be fair to the elections team they were great in getting a chap out to sort things out as soon as possible.

3 - We can't leave.

This again is fairly obvious, and mostly isn't a problem (in a small station look out for the carrier bag of food and drink that the staff have brought in!).  That said, when doing the elections by teatime the staff are probably ready for a decent spot of dinner.  For me this generally involves a slightly odd phone call to the nearest pub or takeaway to the polling station, which goes like this:
 "Hello, Red Lion."
 "Hello there, um I've got a bit of an odd request.  Can you see the polling station just outside on the grass down the street?"
 "Er - yes, why?"
 "I'm in it.  Any chance you could deliver a burger?"

2 - It's not actually our day job.

We don't do elections every day (our day jobs may even be quite different - for me, for example, it's very rare that I get to deal directly with the general public), and so we might have to take a second now and again to confirm the right procedure for a certain issue.  However, we do get a handbook for polling station staff which covers just about anything that we need to do, and staff are encouraged to studied these beforehand so that if we do get a difficult situation we can quickly consult the book and take action.

That means that there's a good likelihood that the staff in your station were probably sat in bed the night before the election reading the handbook.

1 - We love you voters to stop by!

I'm certainly not going to suggest who you should vote for, but I will just say that it's great for the people in the polling station to have voters stop by.  Otherwise we're just some people sat in a village hall or portacabin waiting for 10pm.

I hope that this shines a little light on the other side of the polling station table, and if you are eligible to vote on Thursday I hope that you'll be saying hi to the staff at your station!


  1. Ok I need to go look up what a British polling station looks like. Doesn't sound like the 40 or so booths at the Town Hall that we have on this side of the pond ..

    1. I would imagine some of the central city ones in the UK would be bigger, but generally I have about 3 booths in total!

  2. As a UK citizen living in Crete and a keen voter, I have already ensured my proxy vote counts. As a matter of interest Mike, how does a polling station worker place his vote. Is he allowed to vote where he works?

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for stopping by! It depends where you are and where you live - if you live in the same area as your polling station, depending on the election you may be able to vote at that station with a special certificate issued to the polling staff (certificates are also issued to police officers so that they can vote at stations other than the one that they are assigned). I have done this once, but generally I just arrange to receive a postal vote, it makes things easier in my view.

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