Political junkies ready for the ultimate high of count weekend


New technology to allow addicts get closer than ever before to the action as it unfolds

I BECAME a politics and current affairs junkie at a very young age and ever since election count weekends have been my ultimate high.

My first such memory was sitting for hours in front of a black-and-white television in June 1977 watching a grainy picture of Brian Farrell and Basil Chubb using rudimentary charts to convey the extent of Jack Lynch’s landslide. My dad was a candidate in Wexford and I remember resenting the babysitter for dispatching me to bed at midnight while his electoral fate was still in the balance.

In the early 1980s us addicts were treated to a feast of three elections and count weekends in quick succession. For each of these I spent 36 hours in the same pose which many will adopt today – embedded in an armchair watching the television marathon live with a radio also at my ear. In the days before local radio stations, mobile phones or online media the only frustration was how occasional the updates on the count in Wexford were on national media.

In 1987 and 1989, I was old enough to tally at the count centre and to experience the excitement as the political shifts at each polling station were revealed in the relevant ballot boxes. The anticipation among those from all parties leaning over the barriers was palpable as we glanced at each ballot paper upturned before us, spotted the Number 1 preference and marked it on our clipboards. When 10 boxes were completed we each handed our tally sheets to runners who ferried them to the chief tallyman, who input it to a constituency table to generate overall figures.

Experienced local party operatives who had tallied tables for the same polling stations in previous elections knew instinctively whether, how and to what extent the vote had shifted for their candidate or party in each box. Some couldn’t contain their smiles; others to whom disaster was immediately apparent delayed looking up but after a while caught the eye of fellow party members who were also experienced enough to know what the boxes meant.

After about an hour the first 100 boxes had been collated and the first set of tally figures generated for candidate managers and media anxious to know the story. Key campaign personnel strolled off into quieter corners to phone candidates with the first projections of their fate.

For the next election in 1992 I was closer to the national action working as a political organiser at Fianna Fáil headquarters. We followed the results in the boardroom in Mount Street with Albert Reynolds and others and got increasingly depressed as the results came in. In those days Fianna Fáil regarded winning 68 seats as a bad result.

In 1997 I was a candidate myself in Dublin South East. In accordance with established candidate rituals I slept late and took calls from the RDS at about 11am so I could brace myself before going to the count. Because I was one of those eliminated early I ended up in the party’s rotating slot in the RTÉ radio studio and, because I could talk about figures from constituencies other than my own, was asked to stay on for a couple of hours.

By the time the 2002 election came around, I was out of politics but having done the first of the Tallyman Guideswas asked back to RTÉ to do some TV analysis.

It was then and still is extraordinary to see the RTÉ election count production from within. It is an amazing feat of television and radio production, on a scale second only perhaps to international sports competitions or hosting the Eurovision. As an electoral data-management operation it is phenomenal. The RTÉ election computer system will be the seismograph for the political earthquake we are set to experience this weekend.

In the bowels of Montrose a hangar-type building used occasionally by Fair Cityhas again been converted to a count centre. In one corner, call-takers linked directly to reporters at each constituency count will first process tally figures and then count details. Having been checked by a team of political scientists and producers this data frames the statistical output for election coverage on all broadcast and online platforms. It will be utilised in a suite of graphic presentations for TV that enables instant comparison with 2007 results and allows us analysts to try and project what might happen in later counts and in the overall national contest.

In an eyrie upstairs, a team of senior producers will then make a minute-by-minute call on which output – from studio, from graphics or from the count centres – will be broadcast live.

This time around, in addition to following the event on TV and radio, addicts can follow the minutiae online directly from the count centres assisted by the fact that a Twitter hash tag has been generated for each constituency.

The 48-hour broadcasting marathon that is the Irish election count is terrific entertainment and gives rise to iconic TV and radio moments. However, it also plays an important role in raising public awareness about how our democracy works. It is the kind of public education opportunity that international agencies pay millions to achieve in emerging democracies.

The Irish electorate’s knowledge of our sophisticated proportional representation with single transferable vote system is astonishingly high and this is due in no small part to the drama which surrounds close counts and transfer patterns.

This weekend more than ever the count will make for gripping viewing and listening and not just for political junkies.

Noel Whelan’s The Tallyman’s Campaign HandbookElection 2011is published by Liberties Press