Off by one: How Parliament counts votes is out of date

Last night there was a vote to allow MPs to be excluded from Parliament (after a risk assessment) if arrested on suspicion of a serious offence. This vote passed by a single vote.

The problem is, looking across several sources of voting information, there’s not a good agreement on what the actual totals were. Ultimately the tellers count is authoritative, but this problem reflects the complicated way that MPs vote.

The result(?)

SourceDescribed resultCount of names
votes.parliament.uk170 Ayes, 169 Noes169 Ayes, 169 Noes
hansard.parliament.uk170 Ayes, 169 Noes169 Ayes, 168 Noes
(teller result)
169 Ayes, 168 Noes

170 Ayes, 169 Noes (speech with teller result)
169 Ayes, 168 Noes

What’s going on here?

In the voting lobby, there are two different systems going on to record votes:

  • An electronic pass based voting system – run by the clerks, that feeds into and Hansard.
  • A counting system run by the tellers – a MP for each side is in each lobby, and if they agree the count, that’s the count used to make the decision.

Meanwhile, at TheyWorkForYou, we use tidied up division names created by, but the division lists from Hansard, and add the names to get the number of people on each side. will be quickest with who voted – this feeds into the Hansard list, but the two can get out of sync if one is updated but not the other. 

In this case, Rebecca Harris is counted in but not in Hansard. This could be for a few reasons, for instance she may not have been able to use the pass system for some reason but was recorded manually and added as a correction but after it was fed into Hansard. We’ve queried this with her. In any case, what the tellers counted is the authoritative result for the vote. They could also have been right – and someone else forgot/was not able to tap in who should have done.

But if the count was right, it would mean the tellers in the Aye lobby overcounted by one. This would make it a draw, and in a draw the speaker will cast a deciding vote against the motion (as there isn’t a majority for it).  When it’s down to one vote – you want to have faith the system got the right answer. 

Better ways are possible

We think it should be easier for MPs to vote, and have previously recommended that:

  • The House of Commons should in normal circumstances, defer votes to a standardised voting time (within ‘core hours’), where multiple votes are held in succession.
  • These votes should be held through a fast electronic means – whether through terminals, voting pass systems, or apps.
  • Current proxy voting schemes should be extended to personal discretion to designate a proxy – e.g. a set number of days a year a proxy vote can be allocated, no questions asked.

Electronic voting and a voting time would be bringing back good practice from the devolved Parliaments and help MPs make better use of their time than standing in division lobbies. But as well as being slow – there are clear questions to ask about the accuracy of the current approach.

How MPs vote has big impacts on how our country works – getting it right matters.