I have seen a lot of ballot papers over the last two days. When the Ealing ballot boxes were opened on Thursday night they were sorted and counted to confirm the number in each box. At this stage it was possible to see the papers and take a straw poll of the result. It was clear before midnight on Thursday that the Tories were in trouble locally. The local papers were then put on one side until 1pm on Friday and they proceeded with the general election count.
Again on Friday afternoon the election agents and candidates oversaw the counting and we got to see thousands of ballots again. Something like 4,800 out of 6,800 votes in Northfield ward were â€œblockâ€ votes where people had voted for a full set of their chosen partyâ€™s candidates, about 2,400 for the Conservatives, 1,300 for Labour and 800 for the LibDems leaving as many as 2,000 â€œsplitâ€ votes. At this point the Northfield councillors knew we were pretty safe. The blocks are easy to count but then you have to untangle the split votes where people have voted for more than one party. The split votes were multiplied in Northfield because the Greens put up a single candidate so many people split their votes across the one Green and two other candidates from another party.
There were only a handful of spoilt ballot papers but still 6% or one in sixteen of Northfieldâ€™s votes were wasted. 6,786 people voted in Northfield but only 19,136 votes were recorded. 1,222 votes went missing. Where?
Too many people only voted once. Clearly they had not read the voting instructions. I canâ€™t imagine this was intentional. You might understand why a diehard Green might only vote once but this was very rare. Many people voted for only one mainstream candidate, a mistake surely? This seemed to affect the LibDems in particular. New, young voters?
I saw at least two papers where someone had put three small crosses against their favourite candidate thinking this would give them three votes â€“ only one was counted. I saw one paper where someone put 1, 2, 3 against three names. This would have counted. I saw about ten ballots where people had crossed over the numbers in the left-hand column. These would have counted.
I saw lots (probably hundreds in total) of bingo ballots where three people from three different parties were chosen. It is hard to divine what someone is doing with that. Showing frustration? Showing their lack of decisiveness?
We should think carefully about these wasted votes. 6% is a lot. The number was perhaps larger than it would have been if the local vote had been on a separate day. But the fact remains that with a relatively simple voting system 6% of votes are lost.
I noted back in May 2008 that the transferable vote system used in the London Mayoral vote had similar problems with 1.7% of first preference votes (equivalent of 41,000 London voters) for Mayor being wasted. It seems the locals are even more wasteful.
It is likely that over the next few years that many hours are going to be spent debating and implementing more complex proportional voting systems for our country. In the process many, many people will be disenfranchised as the voting system gets more complicated.