Concentration, stamina, good eyesight and a clear head. As more than two million ballot papers spill out of ballot boxes at count centres across the country this morning, these are the qualities that veteran tally master Eimear McAuliffe says will be needed to predict which way Election 2020 is going.
The tally people’s accuracy is extraordinary. A well-run tally team can usually predict the first count in an election to within 0.5 per cent, and many have a very good record of predicting how all the seats will fall in most constituencies.
So what’s the secret to this extraordinary and very Irish phenomenon?
Generally, about 30 boxes will be opened at a time, with the ballot papers usually divided into two separate bundles. The count staff will then begin to unfold the papers and stack them face up to allow for easy counting.
A well-manned tally operation will assign two people to each bundle of ballot papers, who are referred to as a “caller” and a “recorder”. As the count staff begin stacking the ballot papers on the table in front of them, the caller will call out the name of the candidate who got the first preference vote on that ballot paper, and the recorder will place a tick beside that candidate’s name on their tally sheet.
McAuliffe, a Fianna Fáil member who organises the tally in Dun Laoghaire, said the work required extraordinary levels of concentration.
“You need to be able to concentrate on exactly what you're doing because there's an awful lot going on around you,” she said.
While McAuliffe will try to give the counters and callers occasional breaks, this is not always possible if spare bodies aren’t available.
“You need to be able to keep a clear head, and you have to have stamina because you could be standing there for a few hours,” she said.
While the traditional parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour would at one time have run their own tally operations, most parties now cooperate, with Sinn Féin and People Before Profit joining the combined effort in recent years.
“You have to cooperate, because predominantly you need a minimum of two people for every box that’s opened, and they open about 20 or 30 boxes at a time,” McAuliffe said.
Taking their time
Jerry Mason, a member of the Labour Party in Tralee, helped coordinate the tallies for dozens of counts in Kerry before recently retiring. He said it was generally only possible for the callers to concentrate on who is getting first-preference votes.
“There might be other people there keeping an eye on the number two, but that’s a hard thing to do because the ballot papers are coming out so fast. You’re probably really only able to call the number ones,” he said.
He paid tribute to the count staff who usually take their time while sorting the votes so that the tally people can see where the first preferences have gone. Sometimes the count staff will even go back if a vote has been missed, he added.
“They come out on the table in front of you, they start straightening them out and stacking them because they might be folded. Then they put it up facing you,” he said.
Once the box has been tallied and the tally sheet filled out, it will be brought back to the overseers of the tally who will input the information into a Microsoft Excel worksheet on a computer. This will then produce regular updates on how the count is going.
“We’d know at any time how many boxes are open, what each person has, their total tally in actual votes and percentage, we can give it at any stage,” Mason said.
McAuliffe took part in her first election count in 1977 when Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fail had a landslide win. A nurse by trade, she took over the job of inputting all the tallies into the computer in the late 1980s, having completed a weekend course in Excel.
“I started thinking: ‘How will I put this to use?’ Then I remembered: ‘Oh, I have paper tallies there, I’ll see if I can do that’,” she said.
She soon learned how to rapidly calculate the tallies as well as candidates’ and parties’ overall share of the overall vote. Within an hour of the count starting at 9am, McAuliffe says she’ll usually have a good idea of which way the election is going. During Fianna Fáil’s meltdown in 2011, she said it was obvious from the earliest tallies that the party was going to take a serious beating.
“We could see it with the early boxes. You know where the vote is and it just wasn’t coming in in those areas. We knew by ten o’clock that morning, we could see the figures,” she said.
The early tallies can, however, throw up some anomalies, due to some candidates’ vote being concentrated in certain parts of a constituency.
Dáithí Ó Cearrbhaill is a third-generation tallyman from Monaghan town, but will be part of the tally organisation for Social Democrat candidate Gary Gannon in Dublin Central today. Having taken part in both rural and urban tallies, he said rural constituencies could throw up strong geographical variations.
“People will often try to project our results from just some of the boxes open, but that frequently leads to misleading reports,” he said.
“If you're looking at a Monaghan count and they haven’t opened north Monaghan, then that means Sinn Féin is massively underestimated, for example.”
While the final tally of first-preference votes will generally give a good indication of where the first tranche of seats will go, predicting where the final seat ends up is more tricky as transfers will have a huge effect on this.
Figuring out what way the transfers will go can be the source of much debate among tally people, particularly if there are many non-party candidates standing.
“It's kind of putting yourself in the mind of the voter based purely on their first preference and saying: ‘Okay, if I like this candidate, who else do I like?’” said Ó Cearrbhaill.
Criteria to consider include the parties to which the remaining candidates belong, as well as their gender and geographical location.
Ó Cearrbhaill, whose aunt and grandmother served as town councillors, gave the example of the 2016 general election in Cavan-Monaghan, when Fine Gael’s Joe Reilly was ahead of Fianna Fáil’s Niamh Smyth.
“The combined Fine Gael first-preference vote was bigger than the combined Fianna Fáil first preference, which should have meant that the final seat would go to Fine Gael,” he said.
However, the votes that looked like they would make the difference were those who had put Sinn Féin’s Kathryn Reilly at number one. “You’ve got to say to yourself, if you're voting for a female Sinn Féin candidate number one, who do you prefer, a female Fianna Fáil or a male Fine Gael candidate?”
The transfers ultimately went Smyth’s way, and she won a second seat for Fianna Fáil at the expense of Reilly and Fine Gael.
Once the first tally is completed and the calculations have been done, party members will contact their candidate and tell them when they expect they could be elected, or whether things are looking bad for them.
McAuliffe said this information helps ensure that the candidates arrive at count centres at the correct time.
“You can tell them, ‘look, you’re going to come in the first count, make sure you’re here on time’, or ‘you’re not going to get it until the last seat so take your time, there's no rush, go to the pictures, go for a meal, we’ll see you at ten o'clock tonight’,” she said.
While predicting where the seats are going is the most immediate purpose of tallying votes, the information gathered will prove crucial for a party’s work on the ground over the coming years.
Information on how well a candidate did in a particular ballot box can offer valuable insights about how well the party has been performing in an area.
“We’ll find out that we need to target this area, or we don’t need to target there, or we need to consolidate there,” McAuliffe said. “Did our vote come out in that area, did our newsletter on that particular issue work, did the vote go up in that area compared to the last area?”
With the first tally completed and the candidates advised about how they’re performing, the tally men and women will return to the coalface and try to spot where the second and third preferences are going.
This process is not as accurate as the tally of first preferences, often because the volunteers are now quite tired.
“By the time you get to that point, you’re many hours in, and you’ll often just not have the people there. People will have gone off for one reason or another. People will be tired,” Ó Cearrbhaill said.
Often, the tally people will be seeking to confirm trends that they’ve picked up on themselves. “You’ll look at a bundle of votes being sorted, a bundle of votes being distributed out and you’ll try your best to match your count to that and see how does that line up with what you’re thinking,” Ó Cearrbhaill said.
Every tally man or woman will tell you that tallying is exhausting but addictive work. As well as the thrill of calculating votes as they’re emptied out of ballot boxes, Ó Cearrbhaill said the drama of seeing whether one’s hard work has paid off was intense.
“You’re basically helpless at that point, everybody in the room has put in weeks, months, years of work on this,” he said. “There's a sort of frantic desire to actually do something, the stakes are high and there’s really very little you can do about it. So you’re desperate to be active and to get as much information as you can.”
While the rival party members often regard each other with a degree of suspicion at the beginning of the day, a sense of solidarity generally breaks out before long.
“It’s a very charged atmosphere. For a lot of people, this is going to be an absolutely incredible day, and for others it’s going to be just crushing,” said Ó Cearrbhaill.
“The emotions are running high, and it is so very public. It’s just an incredibly exciting thing to be there for, particularly when you have been putting so much work into it yourself.”