A contrast in vote counting

Canada had a general election on 2 May 2011. The UK held various elections across the country yesterday – local council elections across most (but not all) of England, local government in Northern Ireland, elections for the Northern Ireland and Scottish Parliaments and the Welsh national assembly, and a UK-wide referendum vote on adopting the Alternative Vote.

In Canada, because of the size of the country, spread over seven time zones, polls closed at different times in different parts of the country.

In the UK, all polls closed at 10:00 p.m.

In Canada, based on preliminary results, most television networks declared a Conservative majority government at around 10:30 p.m. EST the night of the election, about a half hour after the last polls in the country closed.

In the UK, almost seventeen hours after polls closed, they’re still counting – not all results are known. They’ve only just begun counting the ballots in the AV referendum as I type this.

Federal elections in Canada are administered by Elections Canada.* Elections in the UK are overseen by the local councils – even national elections. There is a UK Electoral Commission, but it does not administer elections the way Elections Canada does. It does, however, run any national referendum. Consequently there are different rules in place that govern what is counted when in the UK. You can see the timeline here.

In the UK, all the ballot boxes from the different polling stations are brought in to a counting centre for each district. In Canada, after the polls close, every deputy returning officer counts the votes for his or her polling station, assisted by the poll clerk and witnessed by the candidates or their representatives. The deputy returning officer records the number of votes received by each candidate and the number of rejected ballots on a Statement of the Vote. The ballots and other election documents are then sealed in the ballot box and delivered to the returning officer.

The emphasis in the UK is on declaring final results, which is why the vote counting takes so much time. In Canada, provisional results are released on the night of the vote, not final results. This is the timeline for the release of final results in Canada:

The specific timetable for the publication of results as set out in the Canada Elections Act is as follows:

  1. On election night, once the polls in a district are closed, preliminary results are announced and published on Elections Canada’s Web site as they become available. These preliminary results are tabulated from the counts done at each polling station as they come in.
  2. Within a few days of those published results, returning officers are required to validate the counts submitted from the individual polls. These validated results are made public and published on the Web site as they become available. Validations are usually completed the same day that they start. (The Act allows validations to be delayed up to three weeks, if necessary, to allow all ballot boxes to be delivered to the returning officer.)
  3. Once a validation is completed, the Act requires the returning officer to wait seven days to formally declare the elected winner. This is to provide an opportunity for a judicial recount to be held where required. An application for a judicial recount must be made to the court within four days of the returning officer’s validation of results. The recount itself must start within four days of the judge agreeing to hear the application. Once started, a recount usually takes between one and two days. If a recount is held, the results of that recount are made public and published on the Web site on its completion.
  4. On the seventh day following the validation of results (or, if a judicial recount was held, on its completion), the returning officer declares the winner and returns the writ of election to the Chief Electoral Officer.
  5. Elections Canada then collects and publishes the final official voting results without delay, as specified by section 533 of the Canada Elections Act. In preparing the official voting results, Elections Canada does not correct or otherwise alter the results that have been reached either by a returning officer during the validation or by a judge on a judicial recount. It merely collects, collates and reports those results in the official voting results.The official voting results also report the final count of electors on the list of electors for each poll. In order to do this, Elections Canada must data-capture the revisions made to the list of electors during the election, including the electors who registered at the polls on election day.

One of the arguments used by the No2AV camp was that it would further delay the announcement of results following an election, since some ridings would require more than one round of ballot counting. However, it is really the UK’s insistence on waiting for final results that is what would delay results being known. Australia, which uses Full Preferential voting, releases preliminary results as counting progresses, just as Canada does.

I have to say that I think the UK would benefit from having an independent, non-partisan agency of Parliament such as Elections Canada overseeing and administering all aspects of elections in the UK. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong about how elections are conducted in the UK, but it does seem rather strange to not have one organisation overseeing such matters. That said, there are things that could be improved in Canada as well. For example, in Australia, you can vote at any polling station in your constituency – not one specific polling place.  This makes a lot of sense to me. This would allow for polling stations to be set up in more convenient locations such as malls, lobbies of office buildings, even subway stations, rather than just the usual community centres, school gymnasiums and church basements.

The results of the AV vote are expected some time this afternoon. I’ll probably wait until tomorrow to comment on that.

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*Provincial elections are overseen by a provincial body similar to Elections Canada (you can see the list on the Elections Canada links page). Some of these provincial bodies also oversee municipal elections. In other provinces, municipal elections are overseen by the ministry responsible for municipal affairs/local government, since municipalities fall under provincial jurisdiction. Still, the vote counting in these local elections operates pretty much the same way.

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