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The Election Explained: What happens on polling day?

June 27, 2024

As we gear up for the General Election, Edge Hill’s politics team is looking ahead to what is coming and highlighting key aspects of the contest. Today, Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Politics, explains what happens on polling day

Polling day in the UK can seem odd. After what seems like wall-to-wall coverage, the media goes strangely quiet, only to erupt with non-stop material once 10pm comes round.

Campaigners involved know what is going on. But for outsiders, it can all look very confusing. So here, Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Politics answers questions to help you understand the likely events of 4-5 July 2024.

Polling station sign on building

It’s 4 July, it’s barely 6am and I have had a leaflet. What’s all that about?

Campaign teams are always keen to remind people, and particularly their own supporters, that it is polling day. Delivering an early morning leaflet makes the party look keen and committed. That is why activists will be tip toeing around at 5am putting things through (some of) your doors.

I’ve just been to vote, and someone asked me for my polling number. What’s the point of that?

This is part of a “Get out the Vote” campaign. Parties want to make sure their own supporters turn up to vote. But they can only do this if they have data. Before the election, they identify their supporters (remember that knock on the door, that survey you filled in, that conversation?). On the day they want to know who has already voted so they can go and remind the others. This means posting “tellers” outside polling stations and speaking to voters after they have voted.

It’s not legal for a party to interrupt someone on the way into a polling station, but on the way out is fine. There is no obligation to give any information, but it may spare you a knock on the door later.

I’ve just been to vote, and a polling company asked me how I have voted.  Why do they need to know?

This is for an exit poll. The media want to produce figures they can publish once all the voting is over. The idea is to predict the result. There will be a big build up to this on TV, but nothing can be published till one second past 10pm. Exit polls are common now and are used in other countries too, for example for the French Presidential Election.

It’s polling day and there is no real election news on TV. Why is that?

There are restrictions on broadcasting on polling day, so you are only likely to see pictures of the party leaders turning up to vote, or general material about the fact that the polls are open. Parties, however, can campaign as noisily as they like in each area.

In some other countries there is a complete ban on campaigning (including posters and leaflets) on polling day and the day before. This is called the period of reflection and is to help voters make their decision without a lot of pressure.

It’s 10pm. Voting is over. What happens now?

The ballot box from every polling station goes to the count. Counts are organised by the local council and take place in venues like big sports halls. Staff will be council employees plus other people taken on to do the job. Some counts are very quick – Sunderland for example has the reputation of being speedy. But large rural areas, and areas where lots of people have voted, or the list of candidates is very long, will take longer.

First, the ballot papers are checked to see that the right number are there. If 100 people voted in one polling station, there should be 100 ballot papers in the box. This is called the verification.

Once that is over, papers are sorted into piles for each candidate. When there is a result figure, this is reported to candidates and agents. If the result is very close, one team may ask for a recount. Sometimes there are several recounts. This can make results very late.

The final result is announced. The candidates generally stand on a stage. There is no obligation on anyone to make a speech, but several of them will take the opportunity. After all, some will have key messages and have a chance to deliver them on live national TV. The winner goes first.

What if there is a tie?

This is very unlikely. It is theoretically possible though and does happen in some local elections. A tie is settled by tossing a coin or drawing straws (I know someone who lost this way!)

Watch: The Election Explained: Understanding the media coverage of the General Election

The TV coverage of some counts shows a lot of people milling around. What are they doing?

Some of them are from the political parties.  Their job is to watch what is going on and to look out for errors which might harm their prospects. 

Experienced party representatives will watch the piles of ballot papers to make sure none of their votes get put in the wrong pile (it can happen – everyone is pretty tired at this point).

They will also be collecting information for future campaigns. Which areas did better than expected? Which worst? What does that mean for planning?

Why do candidates sometimes arrive quite late?

Candidates often like to delay getting there until they have a sense of the result. This makes it easier to do media interviews and to “look the part”.

There is also a lot of standing around at a count – which is not great if you need to look fresh and relaxed. Take it from me, if you ever attend a count, wear flat shoes.

What is going on media-wise?

Broadcasters go into overdrive on a General Election day. They are looking for trends, but also for surprising results. Cameras are sent to election counts which could generate stories (a Cabinet Member losing a seat for example) or those featuring political celebrities (the party leaders’ seats among them).

We would also expect a focus on counts with strong independent or outsider-party-type presence. Think Jeremy Corbyn in Islington, George Galloway in Rochdale, Nigel Farage in Clacton.

Meanwhile, studio discussions will feature party representatives as well as political pundits. This is the time when those of us who teach politics get to be part of big media events.

For parties, the aim is to make the result sound as good as possible. Expect to hear “better than predicted” over and over again.

For some individuals, the aim is to transfer blame while promoting themselves. Expect to hear criticism of campaign tactics and messages.

When is it all over?

While some results take their time, the key moment is when one party wins enough seats to form a Government on its own. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. One of these belongs to the Speaker. So, a Government needs more than half of 649 to have a majority. Therefore 325 would just do it, but any incoming Government will want much more of a cushion.

Expect the broadcasters to make a fuss when that 325 figure is reached, and then breached. (Sinn Fein MPs don’t take up their seats, so strictly speaking the Government can get away with slightly fewer MPs – but no one would want to risk this).

So, presumably after all this, the MPs get a bit of a break?

Nope. Parliament is due to reassemble on 9 July, with the State Opening of Parliament (the King’s Speech) a little later that month. Constituents will be trying to contact their new MP before the House of Commons email is even set up.

But presumably all the activists get a break?

Nope. All those poster boards need to come down. All those volunteers need to be thanked. The tradition of the “thank you” leaflet delivered to constituents is well established now. 

Agents must also fill in forms to show how much they have spent on the campaign, and there isn’t much time to do this. There are strict rules about the spending, or election expenses, and you can be prosecuted if there is something wrong with yours.

If you have questions about voting and the election logistics, do look at our Election Explained videos, podcasts and articles below.

Watch: The Election Explained – Should the voting age be lowered?

Listen: The Election Explained: Understanding the media coverage of the General Election

Read: The Election Explained: TV, TikTok and letterbox leaflets – what do the campaign tactics tell us?

Read: The Election Explained: How history can guide us to the likely outcomes

Read: The Election Explained: How to make your vote count

Read: The Election Explained: The First TV Debate – Reaction

Read: The Election Explained: The Phoney War Phase

June 27, 2024

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