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Out for the Count – tales from the tally

IMG_3514It was a two legged dramatic affair that occupied my time last weekend. The 2019 local election count was a tense long drawn out event. It had the feel of a finely balanced cricket test match, building to a dramatic conclusion and with a set of count results that actually look a lot like a cricket scorecard.

First Leg

It was an all-ticket occasion in the RDS on Saturday morning for the first leg while the second leg was fixed for the rest of the weekend beside the 18th green of the golf course at the Citywest hotel. The tallywomen and tallymen were queuing outside Simmonscourt well before doors opened on Saturday and the fun that awaited them in the Funderland venue.

Tally
The importance for the political parties of having an accurate tally, enabling an accurate percentage of vote for each candidate in each individual box, was shown by the fact that the tally was a shared effort in most constituencies – carried out by a combination of all the parties.

So Sinn Fein (SF) came together with Fine Gael (FG), with People before Profit (PBP), Labour Party (Labour) and Social Democrats (SocDems), along with a combination of the Greens and Fianna Fail (FF) to carry out the tally together.

When the count began at 9am, the boxes were tipped out by the count officials onto the desks and somewhat of a hush descended on the venue – almost like the quiet of when a kicker is lining up a conversion across the road in Leinster’s home venue.

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As I shuttled tally sheets for the Blackrock Ward of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council back to the designated party official who did the entry on the tally spreadsheet, I could see which way it was going in our Ward. It would turn out to be a massive 20 percentage point increase for the Green party in the area, with Seafra O’Faolain (Green) getting 25% of the vote and, along with Marie Baker (FG) and former Government Minister Mary Hanafin (FF), he would be elected on the first count

By noon we had a first count tally but we wouldn’t get an official first count for another 12 hours. That was because the local election ballot papers were then moved out to Citywest and they wouldn’t begin the count till late afternoon.

Second Leg

The officials in Citywest began by sorting out the ballots into a pigeon hole for each candidate at 5pm. A pair of count officials, armed with pencil, cardboard, elastic bands, sponges, and rubber thimbles, counted the votes out for each candidate and cross checked each other’s count.

Spoilt
Close to 11pm, the candidates and their election agents gathered around the spoilt votes and debated their inclusion with the retuning officer. There were 261 spoilt votes including 83 blank ballot papers. After this was concluded the first count was declared with three candidates elected just before midnight. The count was suspended and we headed home, set to return in nine hours time.

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The second count in the morning was the distribution of the massive surplus of 1,336 Green votes. With no additional candidates reaching the quota after that distribution, and Baker’s surplus of 309 being greater than the gap between the two lowest candidates that is then distributed next. Nobody hits the quota again, so out goes Gráinne Ferris of Sinn Fein (no relation), then the Independent Jacob Chacko is eliminated.

I note down each count on my clipboard and with the other Labour party members we pour over the numbers. Our candidate Deirdre Kingston is sitting seventh in this six seat ward, 118 votes behind the third FG candidate Rebecca Molloy. We think there are enough votes behind us that if we can stay ahead of Sinéad Gibney (SocDems) and Lola Hynes (PBP), as they are eliminated we can jump ahead of Molloy and retain the Labour seat held in Blackrock since 1991.

Recheck
With just six votes separating the SocDems and PBP, Hanafin’s 54 votes she received above the quota in the first count are set to be distributed. It looks like PBP are going out so they look for a recheck.

The count grinds to a halt for a couple of hours while this is done. We look at where the transfers are going and a rough tally looks like Labour will benefit significantly more than FG but SocDems will also pick up considerable transfers.

The Taoiseach strides through the count centre as I’m busy trying to keep people updated on about four WhatsApp groups, on twitter (including two sets of DMs) and the odd phonecall back to my Mum who wants to be informed of all moves.

Rocky Road
We munch on some sambos and rocky road cake that someone has brought in for us and the tensions begins to build. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things. I keep looking at the numbers scribbled out in front of me, hoping they will arrange themselves clearly into a pattern that will take us safely home. Others can’t stand still.

PBP gain two more votes in the recheck and are not pleased when the Returning Officer says she is happy with the check and is moving on with the next count. There is talk of a full recount at the conclusion of all counts – thankfully that doesn’t come to pass. Around us other counts come to a conclusion including in Dún Laoghaire where Maria Bailey’s Dad John is returned to the council but the Blackrock count goes on.

I watch the distribution of the 869 PBP votes. The SocDems get a decent chunk of them (314) and I see FG get very little. Okay, I do the sums. We just need 206 votes to keep ahead of the SocDems. I walk over to where the Labour votes are and my heart sinks.

Throughout the count they bundle the votes in piles of 100 so your eye gets accustomed to noting what 100 votes looks like. There doesn’t look to be two bundles here. I keep hoping a few more votes will come from the pigeon boxes but no. There are only 173 additional votes added to our score. We start to discuss our exit strategy.

What I’ve failed to notice though is just how few votes FG have received. Just 29 have come their way which means it is the third FG candidate who now sits last in the count and is eliminated by 23 votes. We remain 33 votes behind the sixth seat position.

The more experienced heads in the Labour camp run some quick estimates and reckon the distribution of the 1,133 FG votes will be enough to elect Barry Ward (FG) to the fourth seat, with a surplus that will see Kate Feeney (FG) and Deirdre Kingston home on the final count.

Ward claims 743 of those distributed votes to go over the quota. FF get 125, Labour 61 and the SocDems 49. The gap has narrowed to 21 votes and if that proportion transfer continues from Ward’s surplus of 628 that will be enough for us.

Ninth Count
I stay by the SocDem table and see them get 45 votes from that surplus. That means we need to get 66 votes or more for Deirdre to be elected. I scramble around to the table that has the Labour votes and I see a pile of votes that is in excess of 100. I now know that we have this.

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The count official reads out the results a bit after 9pm and the cheers ring out for the elected candidates. Elsewhere in City West they are packing up the tables and chairs but we don’t care. We head to the restaurant for a very late meal and a well deserved celebratory drink or two having felt the full drama of democracy in action over the last two days.

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Tales from the Tally

The morning of the count is a bit like Christmas Day and exam day rolled into one and that can mean a fitful nights sleep ahead of the big day. You are just hoping for a good result but there is nothing you can do to influence the outcome at this stage. You have done all the work you can do and now it is in the lap of the good or hands of the electorate.

Imagine the scene outside the count centre early on Saturday morning. It is like the build up to a football match but instead of two sets of fans outside, there are five. Each have their own colours with Fine Gael having blue stickers, no prizes for the FF and Greens colours and the People Before Profit (PWP) have gone with a shade of brown for their stickers. My party, Labour, are sticking with the traditional red stickers.

At 08:30 the doors to the count open and entry is strictly by ticket only (with no cash are taken at the styles). The tallyers file into the sporting arena (in my case the Loughlinstown Leisure Centre’s main sports hall) and take up their vantage position. Important tally tools include a pen, spare pen, calculator, clipboard, stickers, phone charger, results from previous elections and most importantly a comfortable pair of shoes.

The returning officer stands on the rostrum and goes “It’s nine o’clock, open them up” and council officials empty the first set of ballot boxes and open the folded ballot papers. They have their instructions not to “engage in conversation with politicians/agents during the count” but there is a polite hello at the start and some brief words at the end. Typically a box will contain about 400 or so votes and the number ones from each candidate are carefully note by the tallyer. After 20 minutes the first box is tallied and I post up the results on twitter (by days end I’ll pick up 15 new followers, all eager to pick up news from the Dun Laoghaire Count). I will tally three boxes only by 10:30 when they are all done.

The tally figures are shared amongst the different party’s and the first figures I get with 50% of the boxes tallied make good reading for Labour with Eamon Gilmore on a quota (20% in this four seat constituency). Fine Gael operate a slick vote management stategy which sees Sean Barrett just below quota and Mary Mitchell O’Connor on 15%. Ivana Bacik (Labour) and Richard Boyd Barrett (RBB) are on 10% with Hanafin and Andrews (both FF) and Cuffe of the Greens on less than 10%. This is crucial as being below the crucial half a quota figure of 10% will make it very difficult to get elected. We now know it will between Ivana and RBB for the last seat.

The final tally we get at around 12:45 shows that Ivana is around 150 votes behind RBB. With tally and count figures from past elections at this stage I’m optimistic that Ivana will pick up sufficient transfers from the Green and FF candidates (Cuffe and Andrews). Only at this stage do the count staff begin to count the votes and it allows us tally the second preferences. The tally of the Green vote shows Ivana getting 25% and RBB 9%. The independent candidates are transferring better to Boyd Barrett but surprisingly both candidates are getting the same percentage transfer from Andrews at 5%.

Eamon Gilmore is elected on the first count exceeding the quota by a small margin when the official results are announced at 15:00. Lots of cheering and delight with that result. However elsewhere it seems the tally is off and Ivana is actually 457 votes behind RBB. We spend a few minutes crunching the numbers and by my reckoning Ivana will lose out on the seat by less than 100 votes on around the 9th or 10th count. I hope I am wrong. The 457 gap reduces when Eamon’s surplus is distributed but widens as each candidate is eliminated until the 7th count when Ivana picks up 416 more votes from Cuffe than RBB. Ivana is now 179 votes behind. She comes to count centre and is surrounded by the media taking photos, film and grabbing quotes. She says it looks like the gap is too large and it is written up as a concession but we aren’t quite there yet.

On TV they are calling it two seats for Labour but they don’t have the tally figures for the Andrews votes and we know it is way to close to call. Ivana reduces the gap to 153 while Sean Barrett is elected. There is a flurry of optimism as we realise Barrett has a surplus of votes. This surplus of 387 should favour Ivana ahead of RBB. I’m busy crunching numbers on my calculator with about 20 people waiting on the answer. It is not one anyone likes. The surplus won’t be enough and so it turns out when the official announcement is made. We had knocked on over 10,000 doors in the Blackrock area and close to 40,000 in total in the Dun Laoghaire Constituency and it turns out 147 votes that will be the difference between winning and losing a second seat for Labour. 147 bloody votes. 147. Fuck.

We get involved in a conversation about a recount. Phonecalls are made and discussions with Director of Elections, Election agents and Labour’s Senior Council at the count centre. We feel there is enough grounds for a recount due to the small number of votes between the candidates and the slight discrepancy with the tally. We seek a recount on behalf of Eamon Gilmore. As each candidate can look for one recount, it leaves Ivana open to call for another recount later.
I wouldn’t be making my football match on Sunday not with this recount. Thankfully my manager is a work colleague of one Ivana so he wishes me well when I let him know. We head off to celebrate the election of one candidate, see how the results are going nationally and hope we will return to find 150 or so votes for our candidate in the morning.

The recount the next day sees a detailed check of the Bacik, Boyd Barrett and Barrett votes under the watchful eyes of the Labour and PBP team’s. There are some errors found and the returning officer convenes a meeting with the Labour and PBP team to explain the discrepancies. Ivana loses 8 but RBB loses 25 votes closing the gap but the returning officer concludes it won’t make any material difference. There are handshakes all round and then an announcement is made. “After the 9th count no candidate has reached the quota so I will proceed to eliminate the last candidate, Ivana Bacik”. Bacik’s transfers will in turn elect Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Mary Hanafin will then be eliminated and Richard Boyd Barrett will be elected to the Dáil without reaching the quota.

There will be some singing, there will be some speeches and there will be some celebrations. For Labour, the election will be viewed as a success as they will return the highest numbers of TD’s ever to the Dáil. But having been so involved in trying to get two seats for Dún Laoghaire, I leave the count centre profoundly disappointed. It is time to take the stickers off my car window, to clear out the boot of leaflets and cable ties. I head past the election HQ on my way home and my final act is to get out the highlighter and note the roads we canvassed on the eve of poll on the big map on the wall. It is visual evidence of the hard work put in over the past month by so many people. I shake my head, mutter the number 147 and head home. The election is dead, long live the election.