As you may already know, I’m not currently in full time employment, so when I was asked to be a count centre reporter for Newstalk (where I worked as a student, reading the news, many moons ago) I jumped* at the chance.
*Actually, ‘jumped’ is a lie. I feebly held back, wondering if I could fake a note from my mother alá fifth year P.E. class. I had covered election counts before, and remembered them to be stressful alternate universes, where politicians are celebrities and RTE reign supreme. But then I remembered the buzz, the passing of hours in mere seconds and the satisfaction of doing a good job. So up I signed.
Reporting from a count centre is all about making friends with the right people, being au fait with your technology, working to the tighest of deadlines, and being prepared to be shouted at. I trotted off to the National Show Centre in Swords on polling day (Feb 25th) to set up my equipment (well, a kindly tech guy had obviously arrived before me, ensuring that all I had to do was plug a few things in).
Count centres are invariably in sports halls, community centres or similar. They have that dusty smell…you know the one I mean. The smell of old floorboards and too-high ceilings, ancient sweeping brushes and decrepid caretakers. So the minute you walk into one you’re instantly transported back to some time in your youth when you were bored in assembly, or nervous about a volleyball game.
I can remember when I reported from my first count. I think it was local elections and I was working for local radio in Kildare. My news editor told me to get to the count centre, ‘find a tallyman’, and prepare to be there for 20 hours. Being fairly green and more than a little afraid of the editor, I nodded meekly and began immediately inwardly fretting about what a tallyman* was, how would I find one, and what if they told me to frig off and stop annoying them? I recognised that same inward panic at an election meeting in Newstalk last week, as those who were new to the count centre game wrote ‘tallyman’ about 6 times in their notebooks and haltingly questioned how they were to possibly report on votes that hadn’t been counted yet.
*a tallyman (or woman) counts the first preference votes as they come out of the ballot boxes. Each political party/politician has a team of tallypeople and they are able to predict with remarkable accuracy who will be elected and in what order. Unless there are a lot of candidates or the way the votes will transfer is not very clear, a tallyman can give a fairly clear picture of how the whole count will go.
Of course, nothing is ever as bad as it seems. You do find a tallyman, and they do tell you what the News Editor screaming down the phone back at base wants to hear. On top of providing Newstalk with tallies, my tasks for the day included bringing the counts live to studio as they happened. This required an almost supernatural knowledge of what the Returning Officer (the person in charge of overseeing the count) was thinking and what time he was going to announce the results of each count. He was also liaising with the RTE staff, so it was a matter of having eyes in the back of your head to ensure that Newstalk knew when to blindly go live to Swords. Remember they were doing the same thing with 40-odd other count centres around the country. Let’s just say that tensions tended to be on the high side for most of the day.
Other tasks included knowing what each candidate looked like, identifying them when they came in, asking Newstalk whether they wanted to take them live back at base, interviewing them myself if they weren’t going live, taking the count live while also trying to get whichever politician had been elected/eliminated in front of the Newstalk live microphone, filing news stories, and inputting the count results online as they were read out. Remember that I was based two flights of stairs up from where the action was happening, and you’ll understand why my high heels were swapped for horribly sensible flats within an hour of arriving.
Despite the tension and the dust and the unladylike sweating, there is an undeniable buzz about election reporting. The cheers when a candidate arrives or is elected, the nervous wait for those later counts to see where the transfer votes will go, the tears and emotion when a candidate makes it and the tears and emotion of a different kind when a seat is lost, and a former TD is almost instantly transformed back into Clark Kent.
People may vilify and denounce politicians until the cows come home, but no matter their political allegiance or shady past, worthy achievements or cowardly actions, there is an undeniable shine to those who are in the moment and at the top of their game, and it can be a sorry sight to see one fall from grace and favour in the eyes of his constituents in the blink of an eye. I watched Trevor Sargent walk into the count centre in Swords to cheers and tears. He knew, and they knew, that his time was up. For half an hour he was the man of the moment, everyone wanted to know his thoughts and thank him for his work. But the moment he was eliminated, he became yesterday’s news. He was bumped from interviews on RTE Radio and Newstalk, and kept waiting to go live on TV until it looked like he could bear it no longer. He left the count centre in the smallest of whimpers, having come in with a bang, having served as a TD since 1992.
But like I said, he was forgotten the moment the door closed behind him, as those elected after him were cheered and hoisted on shoulders.
I was one of the lucky ones. The count in Dublin North was quick and painless, and after a mere 14 hours I was able to pack up and leave, with four Dáil seats filled with new (and returning) TDs. Even as the four were lining up at the podium to give their victory speeches, the lights in the building were being switched off and the people were filing out, already giving out about the new government. All in a day’s work.