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The ballot boss

Next Thursday, May 7, we'll all be counting on Graham Shields, Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer, to get it right, says Alex Kane

The main duties of Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer are pretty straightforward: to act as electoral registration officer for all 18 constituencies in the province; to act as returning officer for all elections and referendums here; to recommend to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by April 16 each year whether or not a registration canvass should be conducted; to act as an assessor to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland; to act as an assessor to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner; and to lead and manage the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland. And, of course, to shoulder the blame and offer the explanations when things go wrong on the day of the count.

And things did go wrong at the Euro election in 2014, when the count slipped into a second day - after 16 hours' counting on the Monday - even though there were only three MEPs to be elected and every other MEP across the EU had already been confirmed.

Nigel Dodds described the process as a "travesty"; Peter Robinson said that "ways of speeding up the count should be considered"; Diane Dodds, the DUP's candidate, insisted that "the Electoral Office has questions to answer because we cannot continue to be the laughing stock of the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe over the shambolic way these counts are conducted."

Graham Shields, the chief electoral officer, rose to Nigel Dodds' challenge to "fess up about what's gone wrong" by acknowledging that he "got the frustration felt by people having to come back here for a second day … but it wasn't a shambles, or a fiasco, and I make no apology for taking care to do things properly and make sure votes were allocated to the right people."

But he did accept that "there has to be a better way forward and I think electronic counting is the answer". Interestingly, he went on to say that the system was not just his decision to make, as it required politicians to change the law to allow electronic counting to be used.

He also said that he had provided a demonstration of electronic counting at Belfast City Hall in 2012, but that it was "very poorly attended by senior politicians" - even though there had been complaints about the count during the 2011 Assembly election.

"Perhaps, if they had come along at that stage and seen how well it could work, we might be a bit further along now. I think we're using an old-fashioned system needlessly in the 21st century. There is technology out there that would allow this process to be completed in a matter of hours rather than days and it would only be a bit more expensive than running a manual count."

The system he's talking about - which allows ballots to be read and calculated by a computer - has been used very successfully in Scottish local elections since 2007.

A review by the Electoral Commission criticised the "management and oversight" of the first day of the Euro count in the King's Hall and noted that "some staff seemed to work considerably slower than others".

One of the counters involved told the BBC: "Management was very disorganised. There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Four hundred people were at a standstill for an hour and no information was given. Some were also told to bring in nephews and nieces to help with the count on the second day."

Shields acknowledged that "some counters were good, while others were poor", but was confident that a new test for counters ahead of the general election would "weed out those that are not up to standard."

All of the parties will be watching him very closely this time. A first-past-the-post election is always easier to tally than the multiple count process required for Assembly, Euro and local elections, so if there are delays this time it's going to be very hard for him to shake off criticism. He has committed himself to delivering the results during the early hours of May 8, a few hours after the polls close.

Graham Shields was born in Belfast in 1960 and has a brother and sister. His father was a travel agent and his mother worked for the National Farmers' Union. "One of the great perks of my father's job was that we went away to Spain on holiday every year at a time when most of my friends had to settle for a caravan holiday in Newcastle or Portrush - not that there's anything wrong with either. And while I was still at school I worked at the Commons Brae Service Station on the Saintfield Road in Belfast."

He was educated at Belvoir Park Primary School, Annadale Grammar School and then came a brief period at Queen's University studying Economics before leaving to start work.

A few years later he graduated with a BA (Hons) in Public Policy and Management from the University of Ulster. He is married, with two grown-up children and two still at school.

He left Queen's for the RUC, serving - including with the PSNI - for 30 years, mostly in operational posts and throughout Northern Ireland.

He stepped down with the rank of chief superintendent and took up his current role as chief electoral officer in October 2010, having previously been assistant CEO.

The appointment is for a five-year term and the general election will be his sixth election - having overseen the 2011 Assembly and council elections and the AV referendum; as well as the 2014 Euro and council elections.

He voted for the first time in the 1979 general election, while still at school. "I retained a passing interest in politics down the years, but I didn't actually get involved in the mechanics of elections until I took up my first post with the Electoral Office."

He admits that each election brings new problems and new lessons to be learned, but insists that Northern Ireland is not unique in this: "The count at last year's Euro election did take longer than anyone would have wanted. But it also happened in parts of the Republic of Ireland too and I received a letter after the election from the chief electoral officer in Malta saying that he faced the same issues."

He rejects the views of people like Russell Brand. "I think democracy is something that we can all too easily take for granted and I really think that it is important that people should exercise their right to vote. That said, I think we need to look at making the system more convenient for people. Certainly something like electronic voting or online voting would probably encourage a much greater level of participation. However, for various reasons that is unlikely to happen for some considerable time to come."

Away from organising elections he describes himself as a "fair weather cyclist and hill walker. I enjoy working in the garden and reading, particularly anything about Second World War history. I'm also a keen Middlesborough supporter - somebody has to be, I suppose - and enjoy the occasional visit to the Kingspan Stadium to watch Ulster.

Shields' first term as chief electoral officer has drawn criticism from both the political parties and the media, albeit mostly to do with the time it takes to complete counts and confirm results. But that's probably par for the course, with PR elections and a counting process that still seems curiously old-fashioned and ill-prepared.

But if the parties are serious about speeding up the process-and it is, after all, a decision they must make - then Shields seems ready to accept the challenge.

But a lot depends on how the count goes on May 8. Candidates won't want to be hanging around until after breakfast for results and the pundits in radio and television studios will want something solid to report from 1am onwards.

If Shields wants to persuade the parties that change and update is required and that he's the man to deliver, then he also has to make sure he delivers a fast, trouble-free result next Friday morning.

A life so far

He was born in Belfast in 1960

He served in the RUC/PSNI for 30 years

He was appointed Chief Electoral Officer in October 2010

He took a lot of flak for "a woefully slow count" in last year's Euro election

He thinks that online and electronic voting would encourage turnout

He wants the parties to approve a counting process fit for the 21st century

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