The Electoral Commission

The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK

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Count events

The count and declaration of results

Who is responsible for the count?

The relevant Local Returning Officer has overall responsibility for the counting of the votes at their respective election. This includes ensuring Presiding Officers transport ballot boxes from polling stations to the count venue in a secure and timely manner; and that those recruited to count ballot papers have been well trained in how to carry out their duties.

The counts take place locally at designated count centres, and are overseen by the Local Returning Officer from each counting area. The totals for each counting area are then reported to the Regional Returning Officer who must approve them before they can be announced locally.

When will counts start?

The Local Returning Officer should take reasonable steps to begin counting the votes so the results are ready as soon as practicable after 10pm on Sunday 26 May. This is when polling has closed across the whole of the European Union.

Local Returning Officers and their staff must not disclose the number of votes cast for any party or individual candidate (including provisional local totals) to anyone except the RRO or their clerks until after 10pm on Sunday 26 May.

Counting in Northern Ireland will start on Monday 27 May. Apart from UK Parliamentary elections, vote counts in Northern Ireland usually begin on the morning after the polls close and can take 1-2 days due to the more complex Single Transferable Vote counting process.

In Scotland the result will not be declared until Monday. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles) will commence counting on Monday morning. All other Local Returning Officers in Scotland will begin counting the votes on Sunday afternoon/evening so their local results are ready as soon as practicable after 10pm on Sunday 26 May.

How will I know when the results will be declared?

No results can be declared until after 10pm on Sunday 26 May.

The relevant local authority will be able to provide projected count times.

Who can attend the count?

The following people are entitled by law to attend the count:
  • The Regional Returning officer and their staff

  • The Local Returning Officer and their staff

  • candidates and one guest per candidate

  • election agents

  • counting agents

  • Electoral Commission representatives

  • accredited observers

  • any other person permitted to attend by the local Returning Officer
Members of the media and photographers who want to attend a count must contact the relevant local government Returning Officer to request permission to attend the count and declaration of the results.

How are the votes counted and the results announced?

There are four stages to the count process.
  1. Receipt of ballot boxes: postal ballot boxes and ballot boxes from the polling stations arrive at the count venue

  2. Verification:
    1. Staff count the postal ballot papers and verify that the number of ballot papers in postal ballot boxes matches the numbers recorded by the Local Returning Officer

    2. Staff also count the ballot papers from each polling station. They verify that the number of ballot papers matches the number of papers issued, as recorded on the Presiding Officer’s ballot paper accounts

    3. The Local Returning Officer produces a statement showing how many ballot papers have been received against how many ballot papers were expected
  3. Counting of the votes
    1. Staff sort ballot papers by each political party or individual candidate

    2. Staff then count the number of votes cast for each political party or individual candidate

    3. The relevant Local Returning Officer will share the provisional result with candidates and their agents. At this point, a candidate or their agent can ask for a recount of the votes. The Local Returning Officer can refuse the request if they think it’s unreasonable
  4. Declaration of the result: Once the totals for the counting area are approved by the Regional Returning Officer, the Local Returning Officer, will give public notice of the statement of local totals. The Regional Returning Officer will declare the number of votes cast for each candidate and will then announce the name of the candidate(s) with the most votes as duly elected.

What happens with spoilt ballot papers?

Once the verification phase of the count is complete, ballot papers will be sorted by candidate and any doubtful ballot papers will be identified. The Local Returning Officer will adjudicate any doubtful ballot papers in the presence of candidates and agents and the Commission has provided guidance to help them do this.

Spoilt ballot papers are sealed separately to other ballot papers and then the Local Returning Officer will announce how many ballot papers were rejected after they have announced the local results.

How does the opening of postal votes fit into this process?

It’s likely that several postal vote opening sessions will take place before polling day, as well as on polling day itself.

The Local Returning Officer must give candidates at least 48 hours’ notice of when and where the sessions will take place. At each opening session, the Local Returning Officer will decide whether or not the date of birth and signatures provided by electors on their postal voting statements match the signature and date of birth previously provided and held on record. If the Local Returning Officer is not satisfied that they match, the vote is rejected.

Candidates can observe the process or appoint a postal voting agent to do so. Ballot papers are handled ‘face down’ at postal vote opening sessions. Anyone attending an opening session must not attempt to look at identifying marks or numbers on ballot papers, disclose how any particular ballot paper has been marked or pass on any such information gained from the session.

All valid ballot papers are placed into ballot boxes and stored securely before being delivered to the count venue for counting after the close of poll.

How are seats allocated?

In Great Britain, the D’Hondt system of proportional representation is used to allocate seats. This means that:
  • The Regional Returning Officer will total all of the votes cast for each political party and individual candidate within the electoral region before applying the D’Hondt formula to calculate the allocation of seats.

  • The first seat is allocated to the party or individual candidate that has received the highest number of votes cast in the electoral region. Each subsequent seat is allocated to the party or individual candidate that has the highest number of votes after the following calculation, which is carried out after the allocation of each seat: Total number of votes received ÷ Number of seats political party/individual candidate has already been allocated in the electoral region +1

  • The seats that each political party is entitled to are filled by the candidates in the order in which their names appear on the party list.

  • Any individual candidate who has been allocated a seat or any party which has been allocated as many seats as there are candidates on its list will be excluded from the subsequent stages of the calculation.
In Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote (STV) system is used.

Voters mark 1, 2 and 3 against candidates in order of preference. The candidates with the least votes are eliminated and their votes redistributed.

This is repeated until there are only the required number of candidates left.

A worked example of the D’Hondt system

Votes Party A Party B Party C Party D Party E
Total votes 330,000 280,000 160,000 60,000 15,000
Seat 1 330,000 280,000 160,000 60,000 15,000
Seat 2 165,000 280,000 160,000 60,000 15,000
Seat 3 165,000 140,000 160,000 60,000 15,000
Seat 4 110,000 140,000 160,000 60,000 15,000
Total seats 2 1 1 0 0

In the worked example in Table 1, there are four seats available and these have been allocated as follows:
  • Seat 1 – Party A obtained the highest number of votes (330,000) and is therefore entitled to the first available seat.

  • Seat 2 – The allocation of the next seat is calculated by dividing the total number of votes each list received by the number of seats it has already been allocated in the electoral region, plus one. As a result, Party A’s original total must be divided by two, while the other parties’ totals are still divided by one. Party B, with its total of 280,000, wins the second seat.

  • Seat 3 – To calculate the allocation of the third seat, both Party A’s and Party B’s total number of votes are divided by two, while Party C and Party D still have their totals divided by one. This results in this seat being allocated to Party A with its total of 165,000.

  • Seat 4 – As Party A now has two seats, its original total of 330,000 is divided by three.At this stage, Party C, with a total of 160,000, wins the fourth and final seat.

Can the result be challenged after it has been announced?

Someone can challenge the result of a European Parliamentary election by issuing an election petition. This is a legal action and will be adjudicated by a judge in court.

A petition at a European Parliamentary election must normally be presented within 21 calendar days after the day on which the election was held. Further time may be allowed in certain circumstances.

The Law Commissions published a joint interim report on 4 February 2016 recommending that the process for challenging elections should be modernised, making it easier for parties to understand and use, and that judges be given the power, in appropriate cases, to limit the potential costs for challengers. This is supported by the Electoral Commission.

For more information challenging the result of an election, see Part 6 of our Guidance for candidates and agents for principal area elections.

Can I film at count events?

Members of the media and photographers wishing to attend and film at count events must seek advance permission from the relevant local government Returning Officer.