Behind the scenes on making Sheffield’s elections happen

When voters across South Yorkshire mark their X on their ballot papers today they may not realise just how many months of preparation have taken place behind the scenes.

Polling stations across the country open from 7am until 10pm, with some election staff about to start a gruelling 24-hour shift.

Ballot boxes are ready to be sent out at Sheffield Town Hall ready for election day. Pictured is Michael Bowles, Head of Elections, Equalities and Involvement.

Ballot boxes are ready to be sent out at Sheffield Town Hall ready for election day. Pictured is Michael Bowles, Head of Elections, Equalities and Involvement.

Presiding officers – who run the 235-plus polling stations across Sheffield – began to pick up their ballot boxes from Sheffield Town Hall yesterday, while elsewhere in the building thousands of already-received postal votes were being checked to make sure signatures and dates of birth correspond before they were locked away for the count of candidates’ votes.

The logistical challenge today includes managing the polling stations and the voting process and the delivery of the ballot boxes to the count – before the long process of counting the ballot papers beings from midnight until 6am – with a short break before the local election ballot papers are counted tomorrow afternoon.

If any of the 876 polling station staff – presiding officers and poll clerks – are ill, they must be replaced, while extra staff are on standby in case of the 237 stations become too busy.

However, these are the final stages of a process which began almost as soon as the last local election finished last May – way before the candidates began to campaign six weeks ago.

Michael Bowles, the council’s head of elections equalities and involvement, says: “It’s democracy in action.

“We want to make sure we get the most accurate result we can for Sheffield. I think that’s what makes the team get out of bed in the morning.”

This year has been particularly busy for the core election team of just eight staff – with parish, local and general votes today, plus the unexpected police and crime commissioner election in November after Shaun Wright resigned.

Staff have worked on the processes of registering voters, candidate nominations, sending out polling cards and postal votes, as well as dealing with a late surge of 3,000 people registering on election deadline.

Polling stations, staff to work at them and the count at the English Institute of Sport in Attercliffe must also be arranged.

And depending on the result of what has been hailed as the most unpredictable election for a generation, there may even be a second election later in the year.

James Henderson, deputy returning officer, joked it was ‘caffeine and adrenaline’ that would keep people going today.

He said: “The work starts pretty much immediately after the previous election has finished. Sheffield is the third biggest council area in the country, in terms of the number of electors.

“Just the amount of people we are dealing with makes it a challenge. We are going to have more than 850,000 ballot papers, that’s the amount that could be returned if there is a 100 per cent turnout.

“That’s a lot of paperwork – then the fact we are doing three different elections at the same time.”

In 2010, there were chaotic scenes in Sheffield, when queuing voters missed the chance to have their say as polling stations across the country closed at 10pm prompt.

Since then, more stations have been created, extra staff training provided and a law change means, as long as people are in the queue to cast their vote by 10pm, they will still be issued a ballot paper.

James said: “We’re hoping the issues around queuing will be less than in 2010. We’ve taken a lot of steps to aid the way we do this.”

One of the final tasks before election day was arranging emergency proxy votes - usually for people who are in hospital, or those with urgent work commitments.

In Sheffield, 780 people have asked for such a vote.

Mr Bowles said: “The important thing is to enable somebody to vote...”

Frequently asked voting questions

You do not need a polling card to vote – although it makes it quicker.

Voters in the queue at a polling station by 10pm will be able to vote after changes made following chaotic scenes in 2010

Polling staff are there to help with every aspect of the process and can answer questions or queries.

Unusual election facts

The Lord Mayor of Sheffield is able to announce results for four constituencies and will do so in Sheffield.

The High Sheriff is to announce two constituency results in Doncaster.

If some mistake is made and the wrong name is read out during election-night announcements - that person is elected. A petition must then be made to change that and elect the one with most votes.

Sheffield Council is also responsible for 30 polling stations in Barnsley, due to the way boundaries feature in the Stocksbridge and Penistone ward