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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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