Sunday 19 January 2020

What's it like to be a returning officer on polling day?

It’s basically the biggest day in their diaries.

By Jessica Pitocchi

You’ve probably seen a returning officer in action at previous elections, standing on stage and reading out the results of their constituency.

But what else does the returning officer do on polling day? Peter Stanyon – a former officer for the London Borough of Enfield who now works for the Association of Electoral Administrators – shared what a typical election day looks like.

There are actually two types of returning officer.


While the returning officer (RO) is often the one seen reading the result on stage, it is largely a ceremonial role usually performed by a local mayor or sheriff – most of the administrative work is done by the acting returning officer (ARO).

The ARO’s duties include printing ballot papers, booking polling stations and count venues, appointing station staff and managing the postal vote process.

“Even though you’ve got this strange word ‘acting’ in front of it, in effect the ARO is the one who is doing everything,” said Stanyon.

The day typically gets off to a stressful start.


The most nerve-wracking part of the day is the period leading up to the polls opening at 7am, according to Stanyon.

He said: “It’s a case of biting fingernails, hoping that all the plans that have been put in place over the previous months have all come to fruition.”

The main hopes are that all station staff are there by 6.15am, the right electoral register has been delivered to the station and that someone has actually woken up on time and unlocked the building so staff can get in.

Things chill out a bit more after that.


Once the polls have opened, Stanyon said: “It’s just simply a case of keeping a watching brief on how the day’s going and wanting to understand what the turnout figures are likely to be.”

AROs must react to situations that develop throughout the day, such as shooing away any proactive party supporters lingering too close to the stations or making alternative arrangements if polling stations are taken out, for example, by flooding.

Only four things are needed for an alternative polling station: an electoral register, a corresponding number list, the ballot papers and somewhere to mark them secretly. As seen in the recent local elections, even the back of someone’s car can do the job.

There are very few things that will stop a poll.


Once polls are open, they should remain open come what may, except if there is a riot – which would only stop voting at that individual polling station until 7am the next day – or if a party candidate dies.

When flooding hit the EU referendum vote in the south-east, the stations were relocated so the poll remained open.

Even if a terror attack were to occur on June 8, according to Stanyon: “The law requires you to continue. That said, whether there’d be a pragmatic view taken I really don’t know.”

If you’re still waiting to cast your vote when polls close, you’ll be allowed to do so.


Changes in the law mean that voters who are at a station waiting to vote at 10pm will be allowed to do so – something that wasn’t possible in 2010 when students in Sheffield waiting in line were turned away when the polls closed.

Stanyon said: “What a good returning officer would do would be to have contingencies in place to ensure one, that those voters are able to vote; and two, to make sure that it’s done in an efficient and an effective way without damaging the integrity of the ballot.”

Other key timings the ROs prepare for, according to Stanyon, are surges of people coming to vote when, for example, EastEnders or a football match has finished.

The RO adopts the figurehead part of the role during the count.


Once voting is finished, the ballot box is sealed and the staff complete a ballot paper account, which is a declaration of how many ballot papers they believe are in the box. The ARO will know exactly how many papers have been issued to each station, so the staff’s count can be compared against it.

Everything is then brought to the count venue where the numbers are checked and verified, before the people armed with finger cones and paper clips get to work sorting out the ballots into piles for different candidates.

All the while, the ARO is making sure figures are stacking up correctly, looking into any discrepancies, and just generally keeping on top of things.

Stanyon said: “(The ARO is) the swan who goes along the surface while beneath the legs are kicking quite rapidly.”

If there’s a tie, it’s down to chance.

As happened in Northumberland in the recent local elections, if a count is level the ARO can choose to draw straws to decide the winner.

However, the more commonly recognised method according to Stanyon is to put a marked ballot for each candidate into a ballot box and get the ARO to pick one out.

“That way the candidates aren’t actually involved in the process, it’s simply a bureaucratic process,” he says.

The candidates will typically know the result before you see it being announced on stage.


You may remember Al Murray’s jaw dropping on stage at the South Thanet count in 2015 when Nigel Farage lost out to Conservative Craig Mackinlay – but the chances are that wasn’t the first time he’d heard the result.

Before they get to that point, the ARO will have called the candidates and their agents together to share that information.

If the candidates are happy the result is accurate then the ceremonial RO will be brought in to make the announcement. In preparation for arguably the biggest moment of the night, Stanyon says the mayors or sheriffs will have done practice runs in the days beforehand.

There is one thing you could look out for as a hint for who the next MP will be. Stanyon said: “In some instances it will be an agreed order on the stage that the one who has got the most votes will be closest to the lectern and the one with the least votes furthest away.”

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