It starts on the dot of 7am. At first, we stand up to issue ballot papers for about 30mins until we are used to the system, there being 3 ballots: one for Parliament, one for District and one for the Town Council ( a very long sheet of paper with 17 names on it in large print). We explain them to each voter as there is one vote for Parliament, three for District and twelve for Town (but to confuse local people it is called ‘Parish’!)
The morning goes by and short queues form on and off. I ask a friend to make us a drink. Later, another kind person offers to make us a drink. We say we’ll manage, thanks. I wish we hadn’t! A man questions why we write the number of his ballot papers next to his elector number, realising that his vote can be traced. I tell him it’s to prevent impersonation but I also partly agree with him. He wants to take this further. A woman I don’t know blows me a very small kiss. People pat the ballot box when they have managed to shove their votes through the slot. It reminds me of posting letters to Father Christmas.
Several people have their addresses misrecorded. We don’t have an alphabetical list of people’s names only an alphabetical list of street names with voters’ names recorded next to house numbers. All these need sorting by the presiding officer. The queries mount up and he is kept very busy. One man says our training hasn’t been adequate.
No break till lunchtime. I rush outside and eat a roll on a bench in the shade in about 10 minutes. The Conservatives are on the sunny bench asking people for their voting numbers as they enter. (A popular local man with a large blue rosette blooming on his lapel.)
The voters keep coming in of course. Two friends who attend the same yoga class remind me that lying on my back for a bit would alleviate any aches from sitting on the chair for 6-7 hours by then. I find a moment to whisk myself into a walk-in cupboard, switch on a light and lie on the floor. My spine rebels and all my limbs are aching. I know I have to lie there for longer. After a few minutes everything roughly settles down and I come out of the cupboard feeling refreshed.
That was lucky. From then on, there is no break and the numbers of people grow and grow. When I look up I notice there’s now a group of men with rosettes of different colours having a sort-of party outside the door. There’s a queue to our desk and then another to find a vacant booth to vote. I give up trying to explain about the three ballots and tell them to read the top of the forms and that it’s self-explanatory. If they look askance I do go over it. (There are quite a lot of first time voters who do look anxious so I keep telling them it doesn’t matter if they don’t use all their votes but not to exceed the number of votes allowed.)
Two children come in with their mother and she asks them to tell us their new word. One says, ‘Democracy’ and the other says, ‘Dem…democ…ritty.’ I find it thrilling. When so many people turn out to vote I feel you must respect the will of the people.
A Tory candidate for the District Council comes in and says Hello to me (as we were once old ‘colleagues’ on a community project) and says, Becky, it’s chaos! I correct him and say Organised chaos surely?
For more than 2 hours the queue is solid and snakes out of the building, along the path and out into the car park. Our boss is out there organising two queues for the two different polling stations in our building. We issue more than 100 sets of ballot papers per hour. My attention tends to wander but I must batten it down so as to ensure I write down the correct number on each ballot paper which tallies with the elector’s number. I find this hard as I am far from a numbers person. I know quite a few people who seem to want to talk to me. But the attention has to be kept at heel. I keep going because I know this is a very special day: everyone has come to vote because they want to see a change. It is my duty not to fluff it or to falter. My head is aching. The boss brings me a glass of water.
By 9pm the queue begins to thin out. I get to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat. I eat a roll I couldn’t manage at lunchtime and a chocolate ginger biscuit someone from the other polling station has brought in to share. I take no more than 10 minutes and when I get back there’s lots of ballot numbers to count up, re-count and calculate. The polling station is closed at 10pm. We spend some time clearing up, putting away tables etc while the presiding officer counts up the unused ballot papers and seals ballot boxes. I am away at 10.45 though the officer still has things to do.
Once at home I’m determined to stay up to watch the results on this momentous night but fall deeply asleep on the sofa, wake to hear Nuneaton results, know the exit polls must be correct, haul myself up the stairs to bed. This result baffles me. A day later, I wake to a splitting headache and my guts suddenly go into spasm. I am literally gutted. My total bafflement thickens. Why didn’t we know a catastrophe was about to happen?