We asked three Oxford University Press authors to describe their most memorable election experience in the build up to next week’s general election in the UK. Their stories range from Press Association mishaps to covering elections in New Zealand to the importance of voting. What has been your most memorable election experience? Let us know in the comments below.
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“Accuracy takes precedence over speed when reporting election results, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong – as I learned one night covering the local count in Harrogate for the Press Association. Somehow we caused a small political earthquake in the normally calm North Yorkshire town.
“It was back in the 1990s when the Liberal Democrats ran the council, which is one of those on which only a third of seats are up for grabs at any one time.
“My one simple task was to phone London with the tally of seats won by each party as soon as the final result was declared. PA subs would calculate the effect on the overall make-up of the council and within seconds the information would arrive in newsrooms: Lib Dem, no change.
“So it was with some surprise that, having delivered this unremarkable fact in the early hours of the morning, I turned on the car radio to hear Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown on the BBC coming to terms with the shock news that his party had just lost its flagship authority of, er, Harrogate.
“By the time I got back on the line to London a hasty post-mortem examination had already discovered that somebody on the PA election desk had put all the Lib Dem victories in Harrogate under Labour. That created an entirely unprecedented (and unlikely) surge for the latter, which had actually won zero seats.
“The most striking thing about the incident was not the fact that mistakes happen – they do. Rather, it was the smooth job that Ashdown made of explaining how this setback had to be seen in the context of what was overall a good night for the party. That was certainly one occasion on which he was not caught with his pants down – we were.”
— Tony Harcup, author of The Oxford Dictionary of Journalism
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“Elections produce a most singular feeling for me. The very act of putting a cross in a box, next to a name, is one that captures a very complex set of emotions. On the one hand, I have come to appreciate the genuine value of having a vote at all, a right that was hard fought for and whose worth we too easily dismiss: the power to make a free choice about who represents us and who governs us is one that I often find myself discussing with students, colleagues, family and friends (which may be why I don’t get invited out to dinner so much).
“On the other hand, I also know that my vote, my cross, will probably not result in my preferred candidate getting elected: my track record of living in constituencies where another party has a sake majority is impressively consistent. Indeed, it was only when I moved to Belgium in the late 1990s that I got to vote in (European) election where I could be secure in the knowledge my representative would have a chance, thanks to a proportional representation system. But I have still yet to help return someone to my national parliament, something that looks set to continue.
“That mixture of feelings as I stand in the voting booth always makes me ask the question: why do I put up with it? Why do I accept the result?
“Part of me doesn’t actually accept it, and tries to push for electoral reform whenever I get the chance (like now). But most of me does abide and for a simple reason. Democracies aren’t perfect – they can’t be – but they are still a lot better than the alternatives out there. And that brings me full circle: as I step out of the polling station, I get to reflect that millions of people don’t have the luxury of voting like I do, and in my own small way, my vote can reaffirm its worth, whatever the outcome.”
— Simon Usherwood, co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction
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“It was 2002, and it was winter in July in New Zealand. I’d hoped to relish the chance that New Zealand’s MMP system gave me to make two choices – one for the MP representing my constituency and a second for whichever party I most wanted to govern the country as a whole. But there wasn’t much time. I’d messed up. A couple of months before, I’d agreed to write a post-election column analysing the results for a national newspaper. Then, a couple of weeks before polling day, National Radio asked me if I’d be the academic expert in their all-night, live election coverage.
“I’d accepted, blithely assuming that a fortnight’s notice meant that I could let the paper know I’d have to cry off the column. I was wrong. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to do the radio show, so I had only one option. The election could go four ways, so I would have to write four columns during the day, then, as the results came in, decide which one to go with. I could then tweak it during any breaks I was allowed to take and dispatch it before getting on with the rest of the show. As the results came in I realised, that one of my guesses seemed about right.
“I went with that version, touched it up as others were talking, and then, taking the least comfortable comfort break ever, popped out for a few minutes to polish and press send. The result of the election? A second consecutive win for Labour. They followed up with a third in 2005 before losing power to the conservatives, who then went on to win three on the trot themselves. Ed Miliband, I assume, will be hoping there’s no such thing as a precedent for British politics from the land of the long white cloud.”
— Tim Bale, author of Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband
Featured image credit: Polling Station, by secretlondon123. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.