Quick count

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A quick count is the process of collecting information gathered by hundreds, or thousands, of volunteers. All information, or data, comes from the direct observation of the election process. Observers watch the electoral authorities as they administer the voting process and count the ballots. They record information, including the actual vote count, on standardized forms and communicate their findings to a central collection point.

A quick count IS NOT the same as political opinion research, or exit polling. Quick counts do not rely on asking voters, or anyone else, how they might vote or require that voters divulge how they did vote. No opinions are expressed and none are requested from anyone.

Groups that try to collect data from every polling station attempt a comprehensive quick count. Comprehensive counts are designed to mirror the official vote count. Alternatively, and more commonly, groups collect information from a scientific random selection of polling stations to derive a reliable projection of results.1 Such quick counts require fewer volunteers, although even groups that conduct quick counts using a random sample of polling stations often place observers in many more polling stations than those included in the quick count's random sample. This engenders wider accountability, provides a greater deterrent against manipulation and enhances citizen participation in the election process.

Most quick counts now have two components: 1) an independent check on the official vote totals and 2) a systematic analysis of the qualitative aspects of an electoral process.

Quick counts are used to monitor the vote as a reasonably straightforward arithmetic exercise. Was the counting process proper or manipulated? Were the votes added correctly from the precinct to the national (or district) total? Were voter preferences reflected in the results announced by electoral or other governmental authorities? These questions can be answered at the most basic level—by analyzing quick count polling station observations and comparing the recorded vote count with official polling station results, or by comparing quick count national figures against official national results.

In many instances there is no other independent assessment of the official vote count. In a political environment in which large segments of society lack trust in the electoral process, the quick count can promote confidence in official results. The same volunteer and communications network used to report information on the vote count is also used to collect information on the qualitative aspects of an electoral process. Qualitative questions that commonly appear on observer forms include, for example:

• When did the polling station open? (Observers circle the correct answer; e.g., between 6:00 and 7:00a.m., between 7:00 and 8:00a.m., between 8:00 and 9:00a.m., or after 9:00a.m.) • Were required electoral materials provided? (Observers check off materials provided, which may include the voter list, ballots, indelible ink, ballot boxes, voting booths and tally sheets.) • When did voting begin? (Observers circle the correct answer; e.g., between 7:00 and 8:00a.m., between 8:00 and 9:00a.m., between 9:00 and 10:00a.m., or after 10:00a.m.) • Were any irregularities observed during the voting process? (The form provides a list of potential problems to be checked off that address issues such as disenfranchisement of qualified voters, illegal voting, ballot box stuffing and compromises in ballot secrecy.) • Which political parties had representatives inside the polling station? (The parties are listed on the form; observers check off those present.) • Did party pollwatchers challenge the results at the polling station? (The form may provide a list of legal reasons for complaints to be checked off.) • Were the tally sheets completed accurately?2

Groups can use this information to investigate and report on occurrences at specific polling stations. However, these data are most potent in their aggregate form; this can allow groups to comment on the quality of the process as a whole, and to identify precisely irregularities that could have affected the election's outcome.


A successful quick count begins with a clear understanding and statement of the project's goals. Quick count leaders should identify their goals to facilitate both a strategic approach and a tactical plan. Potential goals include:

• deterring fraud; • detecting fraud; • offering a timely forecast of the results; • instilling confidence in the electoral process and official results; • reporting on the quality of the process • encouraging citizen participation; • extending organizational reach and skills building; and • setting the stage for future activities


Before a group commits to undertaking a quick count, it must determine whether one is feasible. In some cases, even if feasible, the requirements for a successful quick count are absent. Three basic conditions must be met: • observers must have access to polling stations and to counting centers; • the group must be credible (i.e., it has to be trusted by most key audiences on election day); and • the project needs to be supported by adequate resources.

Access to data Quick counts are based on actual observation of events. At the very least, observers must have free access to the voting and counting processes. Free access throughout the day from opening until close of the polls is indispensable if the observer group is to evaluate qualitative aspects of the process. Ideally, quick count groups should solicit and receive a document from election authorities guaranteeing observers free access to the polling station and the counting process at all levels.

Credibility with Audiences A civic group planning a quick count must be prepared to cultivate credibility with audiences it deems crucial to accomplishing its particular goals. For example, if the main goal is to deter fraud, electoral authorities and political parties are key audiences. If the goal is to instill public confidence in the process, it is important to build credibility with the general electorate.

Two main components of credibility are competence and independence. To promote an image of competence, groups themselves have to behave in a transparent manner. They should make public items such as charters, bylaws and financial statements. They should publicize their plans and methods, which should be sensible and feasible. Key audiences must also see a quick count sponsor as independent. To ensure this, groups may require that every individual leader, staff member and volunteer have no partisan political involvement. If this is not possible, the alternative is to create an organization that is politically representative and balanced.

Adequate Resources Significant human, technical and financial resources are required to conduct a quick count. Groups must tap into, or create, a nationwide network of volunteers; they must develop a large-scale data collection system. Funding is required to build and support the observer network and technical system.

Typically, this funding is obtained from sources such as international donor agencies or non-governmental organizations.Nearly every decision about the structure of a quick count has far reaching resource implications. Speed requires telephones and computers to collect and synthesize information. Accuracy demands more sophisticated systems to process data and complete reports. Comprehensiveness means more volunteers, more training and higher election-day costs.

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