Inside the ballot box - Sheffield's outgoing returning officer lifts the lid on elections

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As chief executive of Sheffield Council, John Mothersole is imperturbable - overseeing the authority with gently spoken words and cool headed calmness.

But ask him about being a returning officer for elections and he gives a glimpse of the gliding swan furiously paddling underneath.

John is retiring after 20 years with the council, 10 as chief executive, and the general election snapped his heels as he was walking out of the door.

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“It’s 100 per cent stress,” he laughs. “This was my fourth general election and it wasn’t on my radar when I was looking to retire. It caught me just before I left.”

John Mothersole is Sheffield's outgoing returning officerJohn Mothersole is Sheffield's outgoing returning officer
John Mothersole is Sheffield's outgoing returning officer

The stats are ready at his fingertips like a well thumbed manual. There are 390,000 postal votes and Sheffield is the third biggest count after Birmingham and Leeds. More than 1,000 staff work on the election and 200 polling stations need to be opened and manned.

“It all has to come together on the day with no opportunity for a second chance,” he says.

“You are relying on 200 caretakers of community buildings waking up in time to open the doors. You need presiding officers at polling stations to have cars that don’t fail to start. And then all the ballot boxes need to get back in time without any surprises when you open them.

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“Everybody wants the vote done quickly but it’s usually about 3am to 4am and people are getting a bit ratty. There are so many moving parts.

“I’m in control of planning and the smooth running but it’s like a massive machine and I just let it run. They don’t want me poking my nose in.

“We have a great time but it’s a huge undertaking. The relief at dawn is immense.”

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It’s understandable elections are stressful as legislation is tight but returning officers may also need to make personal judgement calls, such as when to agree to a recount.

The 2010 general election, where Sheffield made national news headlines because people queuing outside polling stations couldn’t vote in time, is still sharp in his memory.

“It was bad because most returning officers didn’t realise how comfortable we had become with relatively low turnouts.

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“It was only when it went up we realised the system didn't have that margin to cope and people were left queuing in Sheffield.

“It’s usually a quiet time between 9pm and 10pm but the queues started arriving outside the polling station.

“There were queues in places nationwide but the national media were following Nick Clegg so we copped for the profile.

“I decided we had to be upfront and say we had got it wrong. The frustration was they were there but they couldn’t vote but the law at the time was very clear.

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“We made that hard decision but if we hadn’t enforced the law, the integrity of the poll would have been compromised.

“One big change since then is that people can now vote after 10pm as long as they are in the polling station.”