Edinburgh South: the Curveball Count

    
May 7, 2010
      
by Lindsay Brown  
 
For the first two hours of the morning, Liberal Democrat supporters at the Meadowbank Sports Centre were unable to contain smiles and beaming eyes. The results of the first and second counts added a certain graceful confidence to candidate Fred MacKintosh’s manner. He was photographed heavily after a quiet interview with a reporter at 2 AM. Yet down the corridor, a final box of postal votes had just trailed in- hours after the other 99 ballot boxes arrived.
 
On Election Day, the Edinburgh Council posted a statement by Returning Officer Tom Aitchison in which he explained the rules of the count and the likelihood of postal votes slowing the counting process. He stated “It is likely that each constituency will not receive this final box of votes until after all the contents of other boxes have been verified against ballot paper accounts. This means that the first count can not (sic) be completed until these papers been (sic) received and verified.”

However, during the course of the evening, Aitchison broke this rule because the first count had been completed and the second count was almost finished before the final box of votes arrived. The results of the 99 boxes showed MacKintosh won by a slim but sure margin- according to confident counting agents fifteen minutes past midnight.

The Council’s tweets show that at 23.41, 99 boxes had arrived. Another tweet at 23.43 noted 100 boxes were expected. Despite no sign of the last box, the second count was already started by 00.30. Finally, at 1.20, Meadowbank was notified that the 100th box was on its way. It arrived at 1.49.

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With Murray to his right, Mackintosh at podium: "Ian hasn't put out anything in the last few weeks that says what Labour would do. He has frightened people about the council and about the government."/Photo by Lindsay Brown

The box contained postal votes that were handed in at polling stations up until 22.00 on Election Day. The reason the last box was delayed was to ensure that personal identifiers were successfully checked using computer technology at Waverly Court, according to Council Communications Officer Noel Miller.

Aitchison’s statement on the Council’s blog demonstrates to voters that a plan was in place to ensure the count remained untainted by postal vote fraud, which was a growing concern amidst the public. On May 4, the Daily Mail’s front page story on postal vote fraud specifically mentioned Edinburgh South’s increase in postal voter registration. Also on May 4, at the Edinburgh Sikh Community annual meeting, concerned members debated the ethics and legality of registering friends and family for postal voting using their properties as home addresses, according to an inside source.

Within the half  hour after the final postal ballot box arrived just before 2 AM, the demeanours of MacKintosh and Labour candidate Ian Murray changed. MacKintosh’s hands were on his hips as he paced from counting table to officers. He reprimanded a journalist who may have had his audio recorder on, “You cannot record this.” Meanwhile, Murray came alive with smiles. Then he would furrow his brows and nod as he scrutinised ballot papers on the table.

The adjudication of votes started at 2.23. Count staff and the candidates rejected 78 oddly-marked ballot papers.

At 3.15, a counting agent received figures showing Labour then had 15,220 votes, Liberal Democrats had 14,848, and Conservatives had 9,500. The difference between Labour and Liberal Democrats was 372. Council rules dictate that if results yield a difference of less than 400 votes, a recount is allowed. MacKintosh requested one and was granted a partial recount, which was a check of the sorting of bundles at 3.53. Its outcome almost one hour later narrowed the gap to 316 votes. Aitchison denied him a second recount, partial or full.

At 4.45 cheers erupted from Labour supporters. Minutes later, results were declared from the stage. The winner was Murray, who received 15,215 votes, a 34.7% share of the votes. Second was MacKintosh, with 14,899 votes, a 34% share of the votes. Conservative Neil Hudson received 21.6%, and the Scottish National Party’s Sandy Howat earned a 7.7% share of the votes.

Edinburgh South had the narrowest margin outcome of all constituencies in Scotland.

Murray was caught off guard by his victory and told the crowd “I haven’t got anything prepared because I didn’t expect to be standing here.”