The methodical art of making democracy happen – meet Julie, the Election Specialist

Updated: 29 April 2022

In under a week polling station across the country will be opening their doors for the local elections. Ahead of the elections here in Three Rivers we meet the woman whose team is making the wheels of democracy turn.

In under a week polling stations across the country will be opening their doors for the local elections. Ahead of the voting here in Three Rivers we meet the woman whose team is making the wheels of democracy turn.

It’s an early May morning. The clinking of milk bottles rattling as a milk float winds its way down the Hertfordshire country lanes – the first sounds to break the silence until the blackbirds kick off the chirping dawn chorus. Meanwhile, at a village hall a board appears to announce in bold lettering that for the day ahead this building will be a polling station. Booths have been set out; pencils sharpened, ballot papers ready, and from 7am residents can arrive to carry out their democratic duty – casting their vote and electing their local councillors.

Polling stations appear overnight, like clockwork, every time the electoral cycle requires it. Urban or rural, it doesn’t matter where you live – this Thursday across Three Rivers a polling station will be opening near you.

The appearance of a polling station overnight doesn’t happen by magic of course. Whether it is Parliamentary or local, each election requires precision planning - and in Three Rivers it is a huge team effort.

“You’ve got to be methodical,” explained Julie Prestige, the Electoral Services Consultant for Three Rivers District Council in 2022. Julie has been doing the job for more than 30 years and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK, leading election departments at a wide variety of local authorities. From landslides to hung councils – she’s seen it all.

“You’ve got to be calm. Even if you are panicking inside, especially at the count you have got to appear calm to keep the rest of your team calm. And you have got to have a good team behind you – and first and foremost that is what you need and that is what I have here. Our returning office, Joanne Wagstaffe, is so grounded and makes good decisions.”

For Julie, her aim is to make every election she deals with run smoothly from start to finish. That means ensuring everything from the pencils in the polling booths to seals on the ballot boxes and the podium at the count are all in place exactly as they should be. Precision is the key.

Her task began back in winter 2021 when her team started making phone calls and ensuring all the venues needed for polling day would be available. That means all the school and parish halls, leisure centres and churches and other venues used as polling stations are free for the purpose of voting on 5 May 2022.

In Three Rivers there are 58 polling stations, and multiple voting booths will be placed in each one.

“You’re talking about three booths per polling station. We own our own booths and we have to store them. They get delivered to each station ready for the presiding officer to set them up.”

Enter the presiding officer – another key role in the election process. The presiding officer is the person who administers every polling station – so there are 58 of them too, and they are assisted by one or sometimes two poll clerks. The presiding officers are trained individuals who have all the knowledge and skills to ensure the polling station will run smoothly throughout the day – and that every eligible person who turns up to vote will be able to do so, no matter what. That includes thinking the unthinkable – for example, what if the polling booths don’t turn up?

“If something goes pear-shaped on the morning, the presiding officers are trained to set up a polling station in the boot of their car. Even if you cannot access a polling station, a presiding officer has got to open a poll at 7am, so they can do that with a ballot box on the back seat and issue ballot papers from the boot. You have to carry on and do whatever you can do.”

In the local elections of 2022 votes will be counted by six teams of eight on the Friday after polling day. At 10pm the night before voting ends and all the apparatus of democracy is dismantled and put away. The ballot boxes are sealed and taken to a secure location where they are watched over by security guards until the morning when the counting begins – which can take a varying amount of time depending on voter turnout, the length of time it takes to verify the ballot papers and on the speed of the individual counters. In a general election counting will take place immediately after the polling stations close. Julie added that, in this case: “It’s a very strange feeling, you start counting in the evening and you leave the count in daylight the next day. You feel like you’ve got jetlag.”

The returning officer is the person who will take to the podium to announce the results – and for local elections that is Joanne Wagstaffe, the council’s chief executive. Once that is all done the new council has been elected and the democratic role of the politicians begins again.

Meanwhile, the huge task facing Julie and her team will be complete, for another year, until she picks up the phone and begins booking venues again for the next round of elections.

“My aim is to get this election from start to finish and make sure it works. It is the hard work of the team who do it, and at the end I will feel quite proud – particularly here at Three Rivers. We are a good team and a new team and a vast amount of work and knowledge goes into making it happen. At the end of the count and when all the announcements have been made, I know I will feel very proud.”