Marian Chambers-Higgins certainly isn’t work-shy. As County Registrar, Sheriff and Probate Officer, her working day is extremely busy at the best of times, but today, with just six days to go until the people of Galway go to the polls, she has even more responsibility resting on her shoulders, as Returning Officer for elections.
This is Ms Chambers-Higgins’ seventh “outing” as Returning Officer, having overseen general elections, local elections, European elections, a referendum, and the Presidential Election last year.
Ms Chambers-Higgins has responsibility for both Galway East and West, but her Deputy, Mr Derry Buckley, whom she describes as “invaluable”, will be stationed in the Galway East count centre in New Inn, while she monitors progress at Leisureland in Salthill.
With 156 polling stations in Galway East and 164 in Galway West, there will be 320 black boxes to be counted, plus two comprising the postal and special nursing home ballots. It is, admits Ms Chambers-Higgins, “logistically challenging”.
“This is a referendum on its own, so in one sense we’ve the same amount of work to do, but the count is a little bit easier,” she says.
The postal vote, in itself, presents a big challenge to the team in the Galway Court Office. Available to those who are away from home through “circumstances of occupation”, such as army personnel and members of the Diplomatic Corps, ballots slips have to be distributed as far afield as Lebanon.
Island voting is another big operation, fraught with weather worries, which through necessity, takes place a day before the rest of the country goes to the polls. Galway’s island voters come from the three Aran Islands and from Inishbofin.
“If the islands were to vote on the same day as everybody votes on the mainland, it could be quite possible that we wouldn’t get the polling boxes back in before the start of the count. We can’t commence the count until every ballot box is in. The only option would be to delay the count,” says Ms Chambers-Higgins.
And, while she admits she has been under pressure to allow island-dwellers vote on the same day as people on the mainland, she will not countenance the prospect of the national count being delayed.
Once the count commences, it is a race against time, but accuracy is paramount. Seventy-six counters will work with one box between two, meaning 38 boxes at a time will be counted.
“That’s very good considering in Galway West we’ll have 164 boxes, so if we open 38 at a time we do normally get all of our boxes open by 12 o’ clock,” she says.
With such a large volume of ballot slips, discrepancies are perhaps inevitable. There is no margin for error, however. And recount after recount will take place until a correct count is returned.
“If we had 100,000 votes setting out, and we count all the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes, we must still have 100,000 votes. So, if we end up with one vote too many or one vote short, we have to count them all again, because I will not accept any difference,” she states unequivocally.
Five years in the job, and with six elections and/or referenda under her belt, Galway’s Chief Returning Officer admits that, while her first general election was a steep learning curve, she is “quite familiar with it all now”.
“I do find it much more manageable now, but you have a lot of worry prior to it.”
And she reserves particular praise for her staff, who work extra hours to ensure that everything runs smoothly in the run-up to, and during an election, or referendum.
But, while a low turnout on polling day would make her job somewhat easier, she says she and her team would prefer a high voter turnout, despite that meaning more votes to count.
“I do encourage people to come out to vote. If you don’t express your wish on the ballot paper, it’s difficult afterwards to complain about the result.”