Christine Tongue: Out for the count

The count took place at the Winter Gardens

Last Thursday Thanet went to the polls. On Friday the votes were counted. I went along to see them counted with my friend Aram who was up for Thanet council and Broadstairs Town Council.

We started with a big morally uplifting breakfast at the Cliftonville community kitchen which uses food surpluses to help relieve poverty. We paid a very cheap price plus a larger donation and went off to the Winter Gardens for the next ten hours.

First hurdle for stick users is a huge flight of stairs. Where’s the lift? I asked hopefully. No lift! And no signs to the outdoor slope I could have used if only I’d known it was there. So started the day by grumbling my way down about fifty steps. And then grumbling some more to the officials running the count.

“It’s a listed building” I was told – as I have many times before as an excuse for really terrible disabled access. And this always puts me in a mood for aggro.

The candidates are allowed to take a companion to the count to help them check everything’s being done properly. So you’re there to watch the counters!

You’ve seen the pictures I’m sure – hundreds of people, mostly women, with little rubber thimbles on their counting finger, flicking through your ballot papers, counting all of them, and then counting the individual votes. They have to decide the ambiguous ones and fish out the spoiled ones – lots of options on spoiling your paper, but unless us counter watchers are reading upside down when your ballot is flicked through, you’re wasting your time. Apparently there was one which said “TRAITORS” but I didn’t actually see it.

The ambiguous ones are looked at by the officials and by anyone else interested to see fairness prevails.

Aram noticed one that had voted too many times, including one vote for him, but being a man of integrity he pointed it out, even though he’d lose a vote! Not sure I’d have done that, so just as well I’m not standing. But I did wonder what most candidates would do….

There are lots of lulls in the process where we’re all sitting around waiting for something to happen. Or trying to sit down as there’s a great lack of places to park yourself where you need to be. It’s like playing musical chairs with no music and no chairs.

That’s when you can wander around chatting to your mates – I had lots there as three of my fellow health service campaigners were candidates. You can also play spot your councillor. Mine was standing next to the table where his votes were due to land.

“Are you my councillor?” I asked. “Are you carrying a weapon?” he quipped. “Only my stick.” I said.

“Nice to find out what you look like,” I said, “after four years. You’ve kept a bit of a low profile!”

Interestingly he agreed with me about saving the stroke unit at QEQM hospital, and worried along with me about what a catastrophe losing A&E would be. I muttered things about his government’s policies and he agreed! It’s amazing how much agreement there is about saving our hospital. Wonder why it’s still under threat…

The other thing to do in a lull is buy a drink. The tea was cold, weak and served by a poor girl who must have been fed up with anxious candidates making a fuss about needing a decent drink.

Badly needs training I thought. I pondered whether I had time to do it. I mean, just using boiling water and enough tea bags would have helped.

But by now exciting things were happening. Results! We had to rush into the next theatre (more steps with no ramp and hand rails attached to the doors so they wobble) where the returning officer calls the winners onto the stage and announces the numbers for each candidate. Lots of hugging and crying might happen here. Both our MPs were lurking around but I didn’t see them hugging or crying. Me and the stick avoided both of them. Neither of them looked very happy.

A lot of people think local elections shouldn’t have anything to do with national politics but they need to know that if our MPs decide to turn up, then it must be politically significant!

By this time things were getting exciting. One candidate mentioned “cattle heat” – the atmosphere of nervous cows and the smell of sweat from people waiting for results – and hiding how distressed they were at the numbers of ballots without a cross against their name!

The results came faster and faster. I was up and down the horrible steps so often my dodgy hip joint gave in and made me sit down, along with a candidate, who also has dodgy joints, wearing sparkly red shoes – channelling Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

The magic paid off – she was elected.

As the day dragged on, we all started wondering if some kind of electronic system might be better so we could all vote from home or our local library.

But think what we’d miss: all that human contact, all that bonding over shared stress, gathering your politicos in one spot to see how their voters made their choices. It all seems very democratic! Especially as Aram got elected.

So if you get a chance, do go to a count. All human emotion and all your local politicos are there!

But take sandwiches and a flask of decent tea. Oh yes, and a folding chair.


  1. Marvellous article, democracy in action, but 70 percent of Thanet refused to vote, and some victorious candidates won with only 7 percent of the electorate voting for them. Congratulations to the winners and also to the losers who at least stopped any walkovers as happened in other parts of the country

    • Basically yes.

      If there is a draw or a very close run result and a re-count is called for – then the Returning Officer may look more closely at spoiled papers to determine if any are with reasonable indications to vote for a particular candidate. These are usually agreed with the candidates too.

      If three boxes are clearly marked but only two candidates are able to be elected then that paper would almost certainly be rejected. (Unless perhaps it was the only paper able to determine a tie and contained a vote for one of the tied candidates but not the other).

      • Curiously, spoiled vote papers are included as part of the Turnout, which I would like to see changed to “null & void”, and excluded!

        • Not sure why you would do that. The voter *has* bothered to turn out. The fact they have spoiled their ballot paper is entirely up to them. You can’t include them amongst the ‘no-shows’.

  2. Thank you for highlighting the inexcusable lack of proper facilities for. The disabled at the Winter Gardens. I share your anguish at having to climb down, and up, dozens of stairs whilst holding up those behind me. I wil use the routside ramped walkways if I can, but they are a long old slog when legs are getting very, very tired. As for they can’t do anything because it’s an old building, what a load of balderdah. Just excuses to avoid spending money. I thought laws were in place to give proper access to those with mobility issues?

    • Yes laws are in place, which basically mean that disabled people, including those in wheelchairs, should have the same ease of access to any building open to the public, that able bodied people may have. Also, ramps should be installed that do not exceed 11 degrees, and have a platform at the end for wheelchairs to be a able to stop without rolling back! This may have changed in the last 10 or 12 years since I last looked!

    • Tony.. if you were actually responsible for a listed building then you might become more aware of the sort of restrictions that are imposed over structural changes. It doesn’t matter if one set of legislation determines that ‘provision must be made’ but in some cases, complying with that requirement can be nigh on impossible.

      • Doesn’t help myself and others far worse off. A relative has to use a wheelchair and we have had to go all the way down the roadway to the sea side of the building to gain access. Tell me that is right in bad weather and any other time, not withstanding a ‘listed building’. Quite simply, this council of ours have no will to do anything serious about the situation. Wait until one of their own in high places needs to obtain regular acccess, we may then see a different attitude. No such thing as ‘cannot do’.

  3. 70% of Thanet chose not to vote, that isn’t the same as refusing. Also agreed on the appalling lack of building access at the Winter Gardens and the laughable excuse that it is listed. There are thousands of listed buildings in the UK which have been made accessible without fuss, drama or a bank loan. TDC clearly ‘refuse’ to invest.

  4. I attended a local election count as well. Also with limited access due to the original architecture etc.

    But I was also struck by how (deliberately?) antiquated the whole system is. The computer has been invented for gawdsake!!

    Why can’t we go into a voting booth, push a butten next to the name or names of our choice, maybe have 30 seconds grace to “delete” and change our minds, then off home.

    The counting would be done by the computer and the results would be available less than a minute after the end of voting. Not much chance of deliberate or inadvertant “spoiling” a ballot paper.

    I’m sure systems could be put in place to protect privacy or to prevent hacking.
    It reminds me of the pointless time wasting in Parliament with their “divisions” and “lobbies” when all they have to do would be to vote by pushing a button next to their desks.

  5. Thanks for an entertaining and informative article.
    Re the Winter Gardens, the ‘refreshments’ are poor value for money and unpalatable, and the building is no longer fit for purpose. Sums up my experience of TDC in the past!

  6. I have attended the ‘count’ in my local district and this was probably the sixth or seventh time I have done so. I was also the Labour PPC in North Thanet for the last two general elections so I have experienced the count there in the Winter Gardens. I agree with much of what has been said by the previous contributors but I do think that being at the count and seeing each and every ballot paper being checked and counted is a huge privilage as it is democracy in action. You can track down which polling station box is being counted and see just how effective your campaign has been in relation to turnout and votes ‘for’. You also get to meet very interesting people from accross the political spectrum and there is lots of time for debate.

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