Art of the tallyman returns to centre stage at vote counts

PERCHED along the railings in front of election counts around the country, the hawk-eyed tallymen use their keen vision and strong concentration to spot every movement of the ballot boxes below.

Having narrowly escaped extinction from the e-voting predator, flocks of tallymen are returning in their thousands this morning, with the earliest birds getting the best positions in over 100 count centres. Securing a closer position to the returning officer than the tallies from opposing parties, they latch onto their position, vigorously guard their territories and wait for the count to begin.

When they went through this same ritual in the 2004 local and Euro-elections, tallymen thought it was the last time their arithmetic skills would be needed. But when the short and troubled life of the e-voting machine finally met its death two months ago, the hawks returned to scavenge at its carcass.

Tallying is a tradition often put down to the Fianna Fáil party’s historic eagerness to keep track of the electorate. In the early days the party would have an agent at each polling station keeping a tally of who voted for them.

Today, tallymen assess the final election result with a margin of error of just 1%. They work for individual candidates, observing the ballot papers as they are arranged by the official counters, and give both the media and the politicians the first indications of what the results will be.

They are ready to pounce if a ballot paper has a mistake, such as two number ones marked, or is missing a stamp from the polling station.

Sean Sherwin has done this job for Fianna Fáil candidates in Dublin in almost every election since he was “old enough and long enough to reach over the barrier” – the best part of 50 years.

He and tallymen like him “are not flash-in-the-pan types,” he says. “They do it for years and years and wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“From when the first box from the first village is opened, you are living through every bit of it as it unfolds,” says Sherwin.

“When one area has a strong vote for your man or woman you are very pleased, but on the other hand if they don’t do well in an area where they are expected to, that can be very difficult. It’s the ecstasy on the one hand and the depression on the other. The tallyman knows it before everybody else knows it,” he says.

Tallymen match the official counters “almost one-for-one” according to Mr Sherwin. Arriving at centres at about eight o’clock in the morning, they start their work before counting even begins.

Their first job is to observe ballot papers as they are removed from the box, unfolded and laid out face up to prepare them for counting.

“The staff will often open the paper and face it towards the tally people; that’s a real benefit,” says Sherwin.

The tallymen count the number one votes in a system they call the “field gate”, which involves a tick beside the candidate’s name for each vote they get, and a horizontal line across every four vertical strokes, with each gate representing five votes.

They record the number of votes from each school voting station, or area, and when that is done, put their hand up and hand it to a runner going around gathering the information, which is then all delivered to the tally master and then compiled on a computer database.

Traditionally, tallymen worked independently of other parties when the competition and rival was intense.

“There would be a six foot four, 20 stone fella from another party up against the railings sticking his elbows into you,” says Sherwin. But in more recent years, “particularly since women started doing the tally”, parties often work together to share information on a count.

Sherwin points out: “Tally people feel good in themselves. The media people are in the most receptive mood to us because we are the only people who have the information they need. We are able to give information to the candidates who are wondering how they are doing.”

This is one of their most important jobs. As the tallymen squeeze against the railings, the candidate is usually waiting in a nearby hotel or restaurant. “Then they get the phone call from their trusted friend, the tallyman, saying ‘you better come down, it’s looking good and the media want a photograph of you’, or ‘it’s not looking good, you’re not doing that well’,” Sherwin explains.

“When people sit down after an election they can see how many votes they got in one particular village compared to last time, and that is very valuable information that can only be got through the tally,” says Sherwin, a former Fianna Fáil national organiser.

“The work that candidates and their teams do for the next five years, and their future election, can be influenced mightily by that information.”

It helps parties, and not just individuals, decide on issues as important as who to put on the party ticket in the next election.

Mr Sherwin says there was a lot of sadness at the 2004 local elections when the tallymen thought this long tradition was coming to an end.

But he was not against the idea of electronic voting: “When you are a tally person and you see how human mistakes happen, and how they affect a vote, you are more inclined to be sympathetic with the e-voting mechanist,” he explains. “I lament the fact that the people who designed the software and came forward did such a poor job of it for errors to be noted in the system,” he added.

For those of you interested in applying, good height, amazing eyesight, a love of politics and a mathematical brain are favourable characteristics.

Once you start, you’ll be doing it for life.

As Sherwin says: ”Some people wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

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