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North East rivals insist it is not a race to declare first election result

Newcastle and Sunderland will be running slick operations and should announce the winning candidates on December 12 – the day of the vote.

Running ballot boxes into the sports hall at Silksworth, Sunderland, has been a TV tradition in recent elections (Nigel Roddis/PA)
Running ballot boxes into the sports hall at Silksworth, Sunderland, has been a TV tradition in recent elections (Nigel Roddis/PA)

By Tom Wilkinson, PA

All eyes will be on the North East regional rivals Newcastle and Sunderland to see who declares the first election results of 2019 – but each city insists it is not a race.

For the six general elections from 1992 to 2015, the slick counters of Sunderland were the first to declare the winning MPs.

They honed a smooth operation with bank tellers brought in to handle the votes, and the sight of teenagers running ballot boxes into the count was an election night TV tradition.

So in June 2017 there was a gasp at the Silksworth tennis centre – perhaps from the assembled broadcasters hoping to relay news of the first result – when Newcastle upon Tyne Central was announced some seven minutes before they could declare the result for Houghton and Sunderland South.

Election administrator Bill Crawford, who worked for Sunderland City Council and helped them take the title from Torbay in 1992, had transferred across to Newcastle City Council to advise them on making their process more efficient.

The Newcastle operation moved from the council’s Civic Centre base to the larger hall at Northumbria University’s Sport Central, which accommodates basketball games, and sports students in trainers were brought in to deliver the ballot boxes to the counting tables.

The location also allows cars to deliver ballot boxes straight to its back door, whereas Sunderland’s tennis centre requires them to be passed along by volunteers from the nearest drop-off.

Mr Crawford is not working for Newcastle City Council now.

Newcastle City Council insisted there was no drive to be the first to declare, and the only intention was to run a smooth operation, with the aim of declaring the first of its three constituencies before midnight.

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Sunderland and Newcastle have a historic rivalry (Owen Humphreys/PA)

It said councils could not use lighter ballot papers and said it did not alter traffic lights to get votes through the city centre quicker.

A spokesman said: “Our priority is to carry out the elections as efficiently and smoothly as possible with the first result expected sometime between 11pm and midnight.

“In 2017 we were the first to declare thanks to our efficient processes and the fact we have many city centre polling stations close to the count venue enabling the ballot boxes to arrive relatively quickly compared with more rural constituencies.

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Election staff carry ballot boxes as the 2017 General Election count gets underway in Silksworth, Sunderland (Nigel Roddis/PA)

“Our process this time for counting and declaring is unchanged and we will be using the same venue, numbers of staff and levels of resources as in 2017.

“As in 2017, there will be no conscious effort made to be the first to declare.”

In Sunderland, Acting Returning Officer Patrick Melia said they will also try to run a smooth operation.

He said: “As usual, Sunderland will be looking to run an accurate and efficient count that the electorate and candidates can all have confidence in.

“It isn’t about declaring first, it is about delivering an efficient and organised count.

“The early declarations have been due to meticulous planning and processes executed by a great team who are extremely well organised.

“We have a very experienced and capable team who work tirelessly all year round, and from the moment the election is called, do everything from organising the polling stations and the staffing of them through to setting up and planning of the count.”

PA

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