Elementary My Dear Watson!

By Jim Dyer

© Jim Dyer 2012

Looking through my old work diaries has prompted a few memories of the mid 70s and the 80s when I became deputy returning officer. Of the decisions I had to make and experiences endured some were funny, some not . They are certainly worth recording for younger association members and I hope that things have progressed so that they avoid similar circumstances.

County Council idea

In 'dem ole days' in Wales county councils ran their own elections rather than delegating the task to the districts. Alright you would imagine. In Newport there were about 20 county councillors to be elected. However whilst Newport ran their counts in individual wards the county council decided on one central counting place for the whole of the town. As most county councillors were also borough members they were not too happy about this.

I was a mere counter then and at the close of poll joined about 30 others at the local college as the candidates and agents trickled in. There was one prime absentee though - the deputy RO, and after 30 minutes of no action tempers became a little frayed. The tables had not even been set out and marked into electoral areas. Although there were many senior officers around for some obscure reason I began to sort things out. Still no sign of DRO so we got under way checking the boxes against ballot paper accounts. There were a few comments from senior councillors such as ' there will be an election petition if you don't get it right mind'.

By the time the DRO did arrive, at about 11.15, I had declared 8 results and the rest were under way. No explanation was ever given and at the end everyone was happy, so it couldn't have been too bad. I never got any extra payment for this task but it gave me confidence for the future campaigns. The county council counted individual wards after that until itself was abolished in later years.

First local and community elections

There was the odd election in subsequent years until my new job encompassed elections. My introduction came at the borough and community council elections. The lady running electoral registration had just retired and we had a new CX, few with any election experience. I had read for weeks the various textbooks and chatted with a few colleagues in other councils. I was to learn quickly not to totally depend on others knowing what to do. To add to the problem there were a lot of multi-councillor wards and the same in the community councils so the tedious checking sheets were needed.

After a lot of allocating duties and preparation the big day arrived. The first couple of hours indicates whether things are right or wrong. Complaints began to flood in. You expect one or two calls about missing equipment but today was a barrage and the small team on call were busy. The most serious concerned portacabins, three of which had been badly damaged since on-site delivery. Hasty repairs were arranged. Then the politicians started to moan.
One problem in particular was serious which concerned a polling division of a ward which had been split to take account of a large number of voters. Given the geography there were two school stations some distance from each other. The problem was the register had not been split geographically but simply in half which took no account of convenience.

When i arrived there was complete chaos and any moans. People from the top streets were passing those from the bottom ones to vote at the other station. When I glanced at the register I could see the problem immediately. What to do? Given the allocation of streets to each I decided to close the stations for a short time and swap the staff, boxes and votes over. Although not ideal it was better. The rest of polling time was littered with complaints and various issues but fortunately the counts and returns were fine.

After an autopsy I decided to send a few staff on an election course at the Kistor Hotel, Torquay run by NALGO a prelude to the formation of AEA. Certainly a few original AEA members were there. It was interesting that my staff told of outrageous scenes caused by a certain AEA member, a sallow youth, J S!

General election nomination 

This challenging issue arose and provided a true test around 1987 when a general election took place. It was my common practise to have a check over of nominations before being officially submitted, if requested. This was well known by agents for a few years. But come this particular election one candidate of a major party decided not to.

Without fuss four others had been received but this one decided to leave submission to the very last moment. Come the last hour I was called up to the CX to take the nomination - a major party. I went in to a jovial collection of senior politicians enjoying a coffee.

I was asked to take the nomination away and check it and asked three times whether it was a formal submission. They had submitted three separate nominations, presumably in case one was erroneous. When I checked them ALL were incorrect for one reason or another. I returned and told them and faces dropped immediately.

What was the outcome? What would other AEA members have done? I would be interested to hear their opinions…

Phantom candidate

Finally, this was a cracker during the mid 80s local elections. I've had some odd characters standing in my time, even a guy who lived in a tent, but never someone non-existent.

Although the nomination was brought to my attention when it arrived in the office and it looked strange it complied with the regulations. The nominee was one Daffydd ap Daffyd, not unusual in Wales and some strange names such as Jon Blicksen and Annie Katugie had subscribed the paper.

There were various undercurrents leading to the election including that no-one had seen him and he didn't turn up for the count. Under the guise of Plaid Cymru he had polled 54 votes which fortunately wouldn't have affected the result. Still all sorts of protests arose and I undertook an investigation.

Supposedly a student at a large residential college he had entered around 40 bogus names on the register. no-one at the college noticed and the police were called in to investigate. Of course this hit the headlines locally and I went on local radio with others. During the discussion the Plaid Cymru representative said 'If 54 people can vote for someone who does not exist, we'll take the seat next time!'

The offender was caught, a disillusioned student, and was sentenced to community service.

These are some of the peculiar things I have come across during elections in Wales. I haven't included the Sunday Opening referendum - a former oddity of the Local Government Act now abolished. It just shows that anyone involved in the electoral process in an official capacity must have their wits about them. Still, the mind boggles!

JIM DYER - (Welsh Branch - Retired), 29 Sept 2010