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End of the overnight election count in sight

PUBLISHED: 12:00 09 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:59 06 July 2010

The Norwich North by-election votes being counted at the Norfolk Showground during the day.

The Norwich North by-election votes being counted at the Norfolk Showground during the day.

The traditional late-night television coverage of the next general election could be under threat because of moves to count votes the following day rather than on the night itself.

The traditional late-night television coverage of the next general election could be under threat because of moves to count votes the following day rather than on the night itself.

The counts in four Norfolk seats - Norwich North, the new constituency of Broadland, North West Norfolk and South West Norfolk - will take place on a Friday from now on.

Electoral returning officers in as many as a quarter of local authority areas nationally are reported to want to abandon election night counts in a bid to reduce electoral fraud and save money.

Broadland District Council set a precedent in July by holding the count for the Norwich North by-election the following day, and, along with King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, plans a permanent switch to Friday.

Broadland's chief executive and acting returning officer Colin Bland said the increasing number of postal votes, which can also be handed in at council offices and polling stations, led him to take the decision.

Election staff have to carefully check dates of birth and signatures for each postal vote, a process made more complicated by the fact that Norwich North takes in two local authority areas, Broadland and Norwich.

“This meant that some staff would be sat around waiting for the last few votes to come. The potential was there for them to be twiddling their thumbs, doing nothing,” he said.

“We decided we would receive the ballot boxes, the postal votes and do all the checks and be ready for a proper start on Friday morning”.

Mr Bland estimated the move had saved between £1,000 and £1,500, since staff earned a higher rate for night work, and said Friday counts would become the norm for Norwich North and Broadland constituencies.

“For us, this is now the tried-and-tested method. The most important thing is getting an accurate result, not the speed, and I'm convinced this is the way to do that.”

A spokesman for King's Lynn council confirmed the authority planned Friday counts for the South West Norfolk and North West Norfolk for the same reasons.

Norwich City Council handles the count for the Norwich South seat. Philip Hyde, its new head of legal and democratic services and returning officer, said: “This is my first day in the job and while I have an open mind, my inclination would be to have the counts on the night.

“Democracy has to be fair, transparent and reasonably quick. I think that is the way it has been done and if we can stick to that then we should. But obviously we would give consideration to moving the counts to the following day if there were good reasons for doing so.”

Fenland and North Norfolk councils both said they had no plans to switch to a Friday count. No decision has yet been made in Waveney. Breckland, South Norfolk, Yarmouth and Forest Heath councils were unable to comment.

Charles Clarke, Labour MP for Norwich North, said: “I hope that the local authorities will decide to carry out the counts on the Thursday night, as has been traditional.

“It both maintains a correct sense of excitement and interest in the election result and also enables the necessary constitutional and political judgements to be made quickly and in the national interest.”

Antony Little, Conservative candidate for Norwich South, said: “I very strongly believe we ought to have the count on the night of the election in every seat in Norfolk and Suffolk. You get the immediate transfer of power - and hopefully this time we will have a new government - and a seamless transition of democracy.

“There's something peculiarly special about a British general election and it would be a shame if the results came in when people are at work. When there is something like a Portillo moment, people want to be up watching and remembering it.”

A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: “We understand why some would want to put off the count until Friday, but a lot of councils pride themselves on a quick and accurate count and would want to continue that. There is also quite a lot of competitiveness out there to get the first result out.”

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