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UK Election Writ Small Part 2: Mr. Cairns Goes to Westminster

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Hung Parliament aside, this election was always about sending 650 Members to the House of Commons. Alun Cairns is the new Conservative Member of Parliament for The Vale of Glamorgan, successfully fulfilling a boyhood dream. He will join 230 other freshman members of the House of Commons (a record 1/3+ of all seats) when Parliament reconvenes on 18 May.

In the 2005 election Alun lost by 1,808 votes. Despite an aggressively focused retail campaign, no one on Team Cairns took anything for granted. Even before his election night BBC interview, his eyes remained worriedly focused on stacks of paper ballots being counted, scanning each table for disaster signs. With the Labour incumbent not standing, he defeated his challenger by 4,500 votes of the 48,000+ cast. This traditionally 'marginal' seat once again 'flipped,' this time from Labour Red to Conservative Blue.

We followed Alun during the campaign. Election night was tension filled as all candidates and their representatives were ensconced in the Vale of Glamorgan's official vote count centre: the basketball/team handball floor of the Barry Leisure Centre.

Members of the press were confined to the balcony overlooking the floor, however, we did have special dispensation from 9:40 until polls closed at 10:00 pm to visit with counters, supervisors and learn about this untrusting, rigid and 100% manual process.

As explained by one of the vote supervisors, "the 82 physical ballot boxes arrived from polling stations stretching 20 miles or so across the Vale. They arrived in the outer chamber where each one is logged in. Each box has zip tie seals and is accompanied by paperwork stating the start and end number of the ballots used and therefore inside each box."

Seated in an elaborate U-then-L-shaped series of tables were 10 teams of between 6 and 7 "counters." These folks had a simple initial task, unfold and count the number of ballots from each box received and place them into stacks of 50 with a rubber band around them. BBC Radio 4's Friday Night Comedy Show (The Vote NOW Show) had a hilarious interview with a group of official counters where they used their little rubber finger thimbles and raced their way through a stack of 50 papers to see who could count fastest. The BBC commentator finished, thankfully, 7 seconds behind. These are professionals, "kids, don't try this at home or beware paper cuts!"

There was assembly line-like efficiency to the process. A box would be opened, party witnesses would sit across staring at the counting team making notes and stacks of ballots would be distributed to each member of the team to quickly stack into piles of 50 with rubber bands surrounding. When finished the stacks were placed in an In-Box like tray. The supervisor compared their counted number of ballots to the official poll figures, holler out, "the count is good" or... "the count is wrong." Then the team would go back into each stack to find the missing or extra ballot(s).

Once rectified, all ballots are placed by the supervisor into the Mixing Bins. These were 2 giant wheelie rubbish bins (that I honestly hoped served no other waste collection purpose!) and awaited the appointed time for actual sorting and counting.

Confused yet? Imagine 82 boxes containing 48,000+ ballots going through this as only the 1st step! It started with postal ballots around 10:20 (wow, absentee ballots are actually counted?) and by midnight they began the real counting process at two of the tables (after a health and safety mandated rolling 10-minute break 2-hours in).

Counting started with stacks from the wheelie bins being placed by supervisors in front of teams of two. They would together count, sort and stack piles of ballots by their marked vote. In the process they created new stacks of 50 by candidate (where possible). The stacks were then carried by the supervisors and given to another team people in the vote tally area. They would review to make sure each stack was 50 Labour, Conservative, etc. votes and place them into crate like boxes, with each crate holding several thousand ballots. You could observe the number of filled boxes lining the back wall under each party's nameplate. By 1:30 am those stacks showed Alun clearly and decisively in the lead. Individual counters finished before 2:00 am and the supervisors completed last minute verifications.

At 2:23 am the Vale of Glamorgan manager announced the results. Just like that, five hours of counting ended, congratulatory speeches were made, cameras were shut off and folks, bleary-eyed headed for home.

It seemed anti-climatic for the nearly 18-months of effort invested by all of the candidates, yet this was how the evening would end for 649 contests that day (one district's candidate died suddenly and will hold their election on 27 May). The Vale of Glamorgan got its moment on the UK-wide stage as the announcement was made of one of 95 Conservative seats gained.

It was a striking display of local democracy in action and a huge improvement over the previous election which was not called until 7:30 am because of four on-the-spot recounts. No machines, no computers, in the end, those dozens of ballot counting ladies (and a few gentlemen) were the quiet, unsung heroes of this otherwise terribly muddled election.

Maybe we should put THEM in charge of selecting a new leader?