Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Gail Walker: How the election managed to leave us all out for the count

Northern Ireland Assembly election May 2011: Counting starts in the Northern Ireland Assembly election at Newtownards Leisure Centre
Northern Ireland Assembly election May 2011: Anna Lo of the Alliance party is elected for South Belfast
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland -Monday 5th May 2011 - Picture by Jonathan Porter/ PressEye.com - Counting starts at different count centers across Northern Ireland after voters went to the polls yesterday to elect new members for the Stormont Assembly and local councils. Voters are also took part in the referendum regarding the way Westminster MPs are elected. Counting starts at the Kings Hall in south Belfast.

A friend of mine took last Friday off because he fancied watching the Assembly election coverage. As he said: ‘I can’t stand politics but I’m a sucker for elections. All those bar charts and graphics ’

By Friday night, he wasn’t a happy man. A day watching Noel Thompson treading water was a Himalayan exercise in endurance.

But it wasn’t what my mate — or thousands of others — had tuned in for. Eleven hours waiting for the first result was enough to have anyone throwing the remote at the screen.

Friday was a day of farcical shame for Northern Ireland. A few hundred thousand votes taking two days to count. Yes, there were three ballots but there were also multiple ballots in Scotland, Wales and huge chunks of England. Yet they wrapped up all their counts within a few hours.

Not here. We suffered hour after hour of ‘vote verification’ shot with grim comedic genius: soaked ballot papers restored by hairdrier; missing ballots; rogue votes; collapsing tables; a computer system that froze when an incorrect password was used.

Amid the growing criticism chief electoral officer, Graham Shields, said it was their job to get the vote right, not quickly. Which sounds right but is actually very wrong. It is their job to do both at the same time. Otherwise, his excuse would be equally valid even if it took a month to complete the count. It is their job to deliver the result promptly back to the citizens who have voted.

They failed to do that and not for the first time. There is a long history of tardy election counts in NI. Add his patronising and peeved attitude to the debacle, and it was a devilish TV cocktail.

Like justice, democracy must be seen to be done. Instead, we had farce. The UK delivered its verdict on the Alternative Vote while our views on it were still being tallied. It felt like, thanks to Electoral Office bumbling, our votes didn’t count at all.

Though all politicians complained about the debacle, they were careful not to blame anyone. Just like the water fiasco and MRSA deaths in hospitals, it was ‘a disgrace’ but it would be unfair to blame anyone in particular. Ah, if only everything in life was as fair as politicians! However, the electoral process demands visible and prompt accountability to the people.

Instead, we made headlines around the world for the slowness of our count. We have become the Ivory Coast. Where other countries used to sympathise with us, now they laugh at us. Five hours determine the next president of the US; here it takes two days to discover who’s representing Mid Ulster.

Nobody covered themselves in glory last Friday and Saturday. If the electoral office need to ask themselves some questions, so do the media.

PR may have been with us for nearly 40 years here but that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with it. Rather than hard facts, we had all the usual speculation and back-of-the-envelope punditry. Indeed, because of the lack of poll news, Friday saw the growth of the fiction that the UUP vote was in meltdown. Meltdown? A loss of two seats is hardly a rout of historic proportions.

Rarely did we see complete tallies for individual candidates on screen, seat by seat, count by count. Yes, we got the odd tickertape Breaking News that Joe Soap had been eliminated but nary a word about how many votes Mr Soap had and who else they went to. Laziness. Boring.

How different things are in the poor, benighted south where RTE seems to be on top of every count and every angle. But then they tend to take their elections, their politicians and their own role in society seriously and don’t just sneer and smirk.

The election was a huge embarrassment for Northern Ireland. One would think it was so disastrous that processes would be reviewed, provisions made, systems replaced, so it could never happen again. Yeah. Don’t count on it.

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