Friday, 5 June 2009

A tale of sixty dedicated people.

By johnofgwent.

No pictures in this - I am getting tired and yet I must get these words down while the adrenaline still courses through me. GA when you read this tomorrow please iron out the spelling and add any pics you feel appropriate.

A little under four hours ago I got into my car and drove up to the sports arena in Pontypool that will serve as the counting house that determines in part who goes to europe to fight our corner.

Armed with a letter sent to me by the returning officer and my purple EU passport I made my way to attend the "validation" of the ballot papers as an officially nominated counting agent for the British National Party.

As a counting agent my duties are basically to watch the process to satisfy myself that nothing underhand is done, and nothing happens that may identify an indivisual voter and their vote.

I watched ballot boxes being brought into the centre of the room, sealed with official yellow "cable" tie lookalikes at each corner and a fifth green tie sealing shut the lid. I asked for - and was immediately, and with impeccable politeness, granted - the opportinuty to inspect a few of these boxes. each bore a signature wich I have every expectation could be matched to the signature of the polling station's responsible officer on the accompanying documentation, and I am certain they had originals of their nomination form available to check those signatures had I asked.

I watched the boxes being opened and the contents emptied onto the tables where indivisual ballots were laid face down and counted in bundles of 25 and then bundles taken into rolls of 100.

I watched each roll and bundle being taken and laid into clear plastic boxes in the middle of the room for all to see, each box clearly labelled with the table number of the team of workers who counted them. I watched as each box was tipped onto a counting table and waved for all to see it was empty. I watched as the box number of each ballot box was written on a record for the table. An audit trail of box contents to box to team to clear plastic destination.

I watched as each successive ballot box was opened in front of me and the other counting agents, each detail recorded.

And I watched as each ballot was then finally placed in these boxes labelled with the team number, and sealed with the same type of rigorous cable tie.

I watched as each presiding officer's return was taken and used as the basis for the declaration of the number of votes in his ballot box. I wached as the totals were added up and matched against the newly sealed boxes.

And I watched as the sealed envelopes containing the copies of the electoral register marked by the polling booth staff with the ballot paper number issued to each voter, the only documentation that could prove who cast what vote, were taken into custody by several burly policemen.

For years I felty uneasy at the ease with which the "secrecy" of the ballot process could be blasted open. All it would take to know who voted for what would be to crossmatch the ballot paper counterfoil - which is marked with your electoral registration number by the polling station staff - with the numbered ballot paer itself.

A few years ago I was told that crossmatching exercise can only happen if a court - well actually the judge alone - declared himself satisfied a complaint of "foul play" had cause sufficient to warant pursuot of an answer. Funnily enough in the last elections this power was invoked somewhere way north of here, and a labour candidate stripped of their rosette.

Tonight I stood in that hall empowered to make that cry of foul play with three impeccably polite members of the constabulary at my disposal should it become necessary to impose such a sanction.

Tonight it was my turn to have my finger on the nuclear trigger. And the burden is awesome.

Oh yes. Postal voting. I watched as postal voting documents were disgorged onto a table. I watched as multi-part envelopes assembled with the fiendish ingenuity of satan himself were intricately sliced open to disgorce the 'authtication form' bearing the voter's signature. I watched as sheaves of 25 of these were loaded into a document scanner. I watched as individual signatures and dates of birth were OCR'd and matched against stored records. I watched as over half failed validation, largely because the machines could not resolve the numerals in the dates of birth. I watched as heroic scanner operators brought up the scanned image squinted at the scereen and took their best guess at a manual keyboard inout. And I watched all this on 21 inch LCD screens pointed at MY side of their desk, slaved off each of the scanning computers, deliberately placed for me and my fellow scrutineers to take every opportunity to scrutinise, and question. I watched as french 7's and zeroes with a stroke throught them were manually resolved. And I watched as the operator fought to manually unravel the spidery writing of a voter whose mother brought them into the world before Hitler send his Stuka's to trouble Poland. I dare not say much more for fear of violating my obligation to secrecy, and their individual privacy but this person's voice has been heard and that it has is owed in no small measure to the determination of those human adjudicators.

It was about an hour into the process that it struck me that rather a lot of people have met a gruesome end in order to let me stand in that room and watch this process without having to hold a conversation in French or German.

I fail to understand how Rhodri Morgan, a man who benefitted by the process to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of pounds - a man who must have stood as I did in rooms like that on many an occasion - I fail to understand how he can possibly have thought it right and proper to bugger of to talk about the Ryder Cup when he should have been standing on a Normandy beach with head hung low in respect for those who could not vote - whether for him or for anyone else, and who would have no sons or daughers to vote for him or anyone else, for their bones now turn slowly to dust beneath foreign soil.

I left that room with the hopes for the future sealed in a small stack of clear plastic boxes with well sealed lids and a police constable's size 23 boot right next to them.

It was a privilige to have stood there and watched. There was an atmosphere, a feeling that what those people were doing mattered

Yet as the Returning Officer announced, much earlier than anyone expected, that the process was done, and that a mere twenty seven point six per cent of the people who could have voted bothered to do so, something shattered in that room. It was as if a crystal chandelier had lit up the place, a beacon of hope in political hell., and the hellspawn had snuffed it out, sending it crashing down in shards of glass.

As it fell, a small piece of my soul splintered in sympathy with it.