An Ode To The Tallymen

For many people involved in election campaigns, come 10pm on polling day the work is done; the voters have had their say and the result is in the lap of the gods. After a long day of standing outside polling stations, trying to influence every voter entering, comes the even longer day (or days) that is the count. Many candidates don’t know what to do with themselves on the day of the count; famously former Irish Labour leader Ruairi Quinn used to go on cinema trips. Some candidates stay at home, away from the count, until they get a call to say that they should come down. Others, such as former Alliance leader David Ford, will be at the count centre first thing to watch the boxes being opened and the results pour in to try and get an early read of how the voting is going. And others still hover about the count centre not knowing what to do with themselves; carrying out media interviews and asking everyone that they meet “What have you heard?”

But for some it is the count, not polling day, that really matters. It is at the count where the real work is done and they can gather the most important information of the entire election campaign. These people are the ‘Tallymen’ (both men and women) and election counts are what they live for.

In the South, the Tallymen are revered as the political experts, who know the result before everyone else, but in the North they are largely overlooked and undervalued, both by the media and, very often, their own political parties. RTÉ Radio produced a fantastic documentary entitled Tallymen of Tralee back in 2002, which is well worth a listen if you have 28 minutes to spare, on how plans to introduce electronic voting almost brought about the death of the tallymen.

Articles on tallying Northern Ireland elections are incredibly difficult to come by with the mainstream media not mentioning it at all, unlike in the South where tallymen are these almost mythical creatures that appear at election counts. Gerry Lynch posted an article on Slugger back in2012, which looked at the Irish Stability Pact Referendum, but again this focused on southern politics. Tallies in the South are so accurate, often to within 1% of the actual result, that they are heavily relied on by the media and help give an early, an accurate, picture of how the vote is going, long before the results are declared.

Candidates in any election are restricted in the number of people they are allowed to bring with them to a count and different candidates take very different approaches to who they select. Some see a pass to the election count as a ‘reward’ for a supporter, so they become highly coveted tickets to witness the counting action, but the wiser candidate ensures that the people they bring with them to the count are there to work.

A Westminster or Assembly constituency may have 80 different ballot boxes which have to be opened and the number of ballots counted to ensure the number of votes cast matches the number of ballot papers issued. This is called the verification of ballots and whilst it may sound dull it gives election candidates the most detailed, low level information on voting in their constituency that they are ever likely to get. Election results are only published at the highest level; for a Westminster/ Assembly constituency there can be 80,000 voters, in a council DEA there might be 20,000 voters, but an individual box may only have 500 ballots in it. The Electoral Office publish Polling Station Schemes for every constituency which details the electors for in each ballot box, so candidates are then able to identify what streets vote in each box. This means a party can tell to a scale as small as a handful of streets what level of support they have in that area. A vast amount of preparatory work goes into getting spreadsheets set up in advance so that as soon as voting information is keyed into the system it starts to show the results in real time. All of this work is carried out in advance so once the boxes are opened the Tallymen step up and come into their own.


8 to 10 ballot boxes may be opened at one time meaning that it is essential candidates have their tallymen at every table, to note which box is open and to carry out a tally of the votes as they are being verified. Counting staff are only interested in counting the number of votes in each box, to make sure it matches the number of ballot papers that are issued, but whilst they are counting papers the tallymen are hard at work looking to identify first preferences for every candidate, not just their own candidates’ votes. They monitor and count votes with the intention of going for a full tally of every vote in the box, which is incredibly difficult to get, and so usually aim for 100 votes per box. Once they think they have a good picture of the box they move on to the next box and start over again. The completed tally sheets are fed back to the tallymaster, a fancy name for the person with the laptop, who keys in the information and gets a picture of how the vote is going: where it is up, where it is down, and what the first preference totals for each candidate are going to be. Candidates also receive a verification statement from the returning officer which gives the total number of valid votes cast in each box so this is used, in conjunction with the estimated percentage of party support in each box, to determine the first sense of the number of votes cast for each party.

Depending on the candidates and the parties running in each DEA, and their relationship with each other, parties will generally work together, sharing information on boxes which have been missed in order to ensure that everyone gets a fuller picture of the results. There is something quite strange about sharing vital information with the same people you have been fighting with for votes with over the previous six weeks, knowing that in a few hours’ time one of you could be a winner and the other a loser. And yet it happens almost everywhere.

Once the dust has settled on the election, this information is vital for each party to identify core areas of support and to dispel myths about a particular area that has previously been a stronghold or poor area of support for a party. When tallies are compared election by election it is very helpful for the parties to see where their votes came from or whether the vote has increased as a result of an effort that was made in a specific area. Tallies are also used to help parties allocate canvassing areas in future elections when running multiple candidates, to maximise their vote and secure the highest possible number of seats.

And all of this can only happen because of the work of the tallymen and their ability to identify first preference votes being poured out of ballot boxes.

Photo by mounsey is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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