Experiences Working Within the UK Electoral Process
When voters exercise the democratic right to vote, their experience at the polling station is usually a very brief one, taking no longer than a couple of minutes once into the polling station. Therefore, the events of a polling station throughout its 15 hour opening are fairly unfamiliar to the majority of voters. This is also true of the count, which is attended largely by count staff, the candidates and their agents. Working at these events for the last two years in an Outer London Borough, I have discovered that rather than being the uneventful day I first expected, the role is actually quite interesting.
There are certain events which occur on a regular basis at all polling stations, for example forgotten polling cards or police check-ups. However, the real variation in the day’s events comes in the voters themselves. Working at the last two national UK elections I have come across a vast range of personalities. The issues which this creates can range from the humorous to the absurd. For example, at the 2010 General Election, one voter whom I dealt with arrived with no polling card, and upon asking their address, had then to return home to check where they actually lived. Another voter placed their ballot into the box without actually marking a vote on it, while one elderly forgetful gentleman tried to vote twice in the same day after receiving a late call from tellers. Whilst these events illustrate one end of the spectrum, completely different situations arise at the other.
A reasonably regular occurrence is the voter who seeks to question the secrecy of the ballot. This is a logical point to make as poll clerks are required to note down the specific ballot paper number allocated to each voter. Therefore, a person’s vote could be traced back to them together with their voting choice. The first time I faced this question the presiding officer was dealing with another matter and I struggled to find an immediate response, other than that they seemed to be correct. However, the scenario which would involve the tracing of a vote is extremely rare and is used only as a means of election security. The opening up of ballot registers, that are sealed immediately after the election, can only be sanctioned by a High Court Judge and then only in cases of suspected fraud or other election irregularity. Nonetheless, the answer is seldom received by voters without some disapproving expression.
Voters who attended the polling station at which I worked also demonstrated a common theme, namely their age profile. In my small electoral ward of around a thousand people the proportion of young people voting was noticeably small in comparison to other age brackets, and the young people who did vote were often accompanied by their parent or guardian. This distribution is representative of the wider UK issues regarding electoral turnout, in particular the apathy amongst younger generations. For me, the best symbol of the importance of voting came from the older age bracket. Many older retired couples came to vote very early in the day and dressed noticeably smart, the men often in suits. This seems to represent the sense of civic duty which may be disappearing. The younger generations were noticeably absent in the area I worked, which if not addressed nationally could lead to voter turnout experiencing a further decline. Postal voting has obviously provided a voting alternative but this seemed to be an alternative for existing committed voters rather than attracting new young voters.
Following the close of the polls at 10pm, ballots boxes are sealed and taken directly to the count by a presiding officer. At the count, the marked ballot papers were kept face upwards to keep the number on the back of the ballot paper secret. This all takes place under the scrutiny of agents representing the candidates and by the returning officer and his staff so that no fraudulent or dishonest practice may take place, or obvious mistakes made.
Dubious or unclear votes are placed in a specific tray to be adjudicated on by the returning officer in front of election agents. Some voters prefer a smiley face to a cross and others take the opportunity to send a message, ‘none of this bloody lot’ being one of the most polite.
I was amazed at just how many times a recount of the same votes could give different totals, often not significant in number but not reassuring. However, probably the biggest risk for errors is in respect of the final batching of voters where the incorrect attachment of a single bundle to the wrong party could have a massive impact on the outcome in a close race. The count I worked at went on until after 6am with many of the staff having also worked in polling stations from the same time the day before, so concentration levels seemed bound to dip. There is an obvious eagerness to know the outcome of elections as soon as possible, which seems part of our election culture. However, I noticed that when counting in the 2010 UK voting referendum, a day after the vote, it was a more controlled and accurate process with high levels of verification and counting accuracy.
I found that working on national elections in the UK proved to be an interesting and eventful experience. For me it was novel and actually quite financially rewarding for a student. The opportunity to learn about the processes and deal with the issues that arose proved to be thoroughly enjoyable. However, perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the work came in the aiding of the democratic process, and contributing to the arrival at two significant election results.