General Election 2015 explained: Who registers the parties, who counts your vote – and how much do they get paid?

Today we launch a series that cuts through the fog of the campaign trail and goes back to basics. A daily miscellany of general election facts, figures, trivia and traditions, it’s a must-read celebration – and explanation – of British democratic processes

Jenny Watson
Monday 13 April 2015 09:42

No 1 Administrators

Returning officers

The administration of general elections is the responsibility of the returning officers of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies. The post is an honorary one, usually held on a long-term basis by a holder of an existing office such as county high sheriff, mayor or local council chairman. At the time of an election, each returning officer will appoint an (acting) returning officer to perform the returning officer’s functions.

(ACTING) Returning officers

(Acting) returning officers (AROs) are the unsung officials without whom a British general election could not take place.

Normally a senior council official or the chief executive of the local authority, the ARO for a constituency is appointed on an election-by-election basis. The ARO is responsible for the organisation and conduct of the election, including:

* nominations;

* distribution of poll cards and postal ballot papers;

* staffing;

* supplies of key items such as polling booths and ballot boxes;

* the conduct of the poll;

* the counting of votes.

AROs are legally responsible for mistakes made by their staff and may be fined up to £5,000 if convicted of breaches of their official duty. They are personally responsible for all aspects of the financial cost of administering an election. They are paid an advance and have to submit a detailed expense claim for all money spent.

AROs’ remuneration for the period of the election ranges from £2,500 to £5,401, depending on the constituency.

They also get a budget for expenses (including the payment of other officials) which ranges from £74,593 to £274,264 depending on constituency.

In recent years there have been suggestions from MPs that the returning officers, being highly paid officials already, should not be entitled to substantial additional fees for overseeing elections.

The Conservative MP Andrew Selous has described such fees as “a large, undeserved cherry on top of an already very well-iced cake”.

John Mothersole, chief executive of Sheffield City Council, decided not to claim his £20,000 (acting) returning officer’s fee after long queues prevented many people in the city from voting in the 2010 general election.

Presiding officers

(Acting) returning officers appoint presiding officers to run polling stations. The presiding officer is responsible for ensuring that the election runs smoothly within a particular polling station.

Specific responsibilities include ensuring that ballot boxes are secure and overseeing their safe transfer to the count. Like most election officials, presiding officers are usually local authority employees who have been seconded for the day.

Poll clerks

Around 43,000 polling stations will be open on polling day, from 7am to 10pm These will be manned by about 120,000 people, mostly poll clerks.

Duties of polling clerks include:

* checking that electors are eligible to vote in that election and at that polling station;

* checking and marking elector numbers in the register of electors;

* issuing ballot papers;

* ensuring the secrecy of the ballot is maintained at all times;

* assisting voters in a friendly and professional way.

* Anyone can be a poll clerk, as long as they have not been involved in any candidate’s campaign, and are a British citizen of voting age.

Polling clerks can earn anything from £100 to £250 for working on election day, depending on the local authority. The shift is notoriously long, often lasting 15 or 16 hours.

Electoral registration officers

Electoral registration officers are responsible for ensuring that the electoral registers in their area are as complete and accurate as possible.

Counting assistants

More than 80,000 counting assistants will count the votes on election night.


Election officials’ fees vary widely from constituency to constituency but might typically be:

Presiding officer: £250-£300;

Poll clerk: £115-£190;

Postal vote issuer: £8 per hour;

Postal vote opener: £9 per hour;

Count supervisor: £150 night shift;

Counting assistant: £12.50 per hour (plus £10 training fee).


Before 1918, returning officers’ administrative costs were paid (collectively) by the candidates in their constituency. Had such a system been in place in 2010, candidates would have faced an average bill of £27,290.

In 1832, total expenses for all the UK’s returning officers were £56,441 (or £141 per constituency). By 1997, the national total was £29,764,513 (£45,166 per constituency).

In 2005-6, the national payment to returning officers was £40,046,045 (£61,991 per constituency).


Organisations and individuals over 16 can apply to the Electoral Commission to be accredited as electoral observers.

Those who receive accreditation are entitled to observe specified electoral proceedings, including:

the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers;

the poll;

the counting of the votes.

They are not allowed to do anything that would jeopardise the secrecy of the ballot.

Registers of accredited observers are available from the Electoral Commission.


Scrutineers, who may be present as observers during polling, may include the following: polling agents (who observe the sealing of the empty ballot box, look out for improper practices during polling and report anything of significance to their party candidate); counting agents (who observe the count and ensure that their candidate is not disadvantaged in any way); and accredited observers, who, unlike the agents, are required to be impartial and to report problems to election officials rather than candidates.


Often confused with officials, tellers are simply supporters of the various candidates and parties, who may stop you outside the polling station and ask you for your name and address. There is no need for you to tell them unless you want to.

Tellers must not “have discussions with voters which may give rise to allegations of undue influence (eg, voting intentions, party affiliations, party campaigns)” or display any campaign material in support of (or against) a party or candidate.

The Electoral Commission

Overall responsibility for the conduct of the election rests with the Electoral Commission, whose duties include:

registering political parties;

ensuring that people understand and follow the rules on party and election finance;

producing guidance for candidates and parties standing for election;

publishing details of where parties and candidates get money from;

“setting the standards for electoral registration” and making sure people understand that it is important to register to vote.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, has previously held senior roles at Charter 88, the Fawcett Society, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Banking Code Standards Board, Audit Commission and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management.

She works three days a week and is paid £101,500 a year.

Tomorrow: No 2 broadcasting

The Independent has got together with to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.

Click the buttons below to explore how the main parties' fortunes have changed:

All data, polls and graphics are courtesy of Click through for daily analysis, in-depth features and all the data you need. (All historical data used is provided by UK Polling Report)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in