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13 June, 2004

Elect to think

In case anyone didn't notice, there were elections across the whole EU, this week for the European Parliament.  Many areas of the UK combined that process with elections of local councils, and London (re)elected a mayor, but here in Lancaster it was 'just' the European election.

We (the North West England EU constituency) were one of the four regions participating in the UK's all-postal ballot experiment. Discounting small-scale hassles (wildly hyped by the media) involving ballot papers printed wrongly & hence distributed a matter of hours late and a couple of individual cases of malpractice, it seems to have worked okay, with a projected turnout almost double that of the 1999 elections. That had been appallingly apathetic; I understand the expected turnout is still only 40% of the electorate.
When one puts the constituency into the context of its representation in Europe, the electorate's lack of interest is disturbing.
The constituency stretches 143 miles (230 km) from Crewe to Carlisle, including Liverpool and Manchester, so contains more than five million voters. That's more than 11 entire EU member states. We're represented in the European Parliament by nine MEPs, the same number as the whole of Latvia and a third as many as the whole of the Netherlands.

I'm not going to comment on the party politics, beyond saying that I found it very difficult to allocate my vote; had there been a 'none of the above' option, I wouldn't have hesitated. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of wasting a vote as a protest (though that's still a vote of sorts), so I gave it a lot of thought.

A few thoughts on the voting process itself:

The array of envelopes, ballot paper and instructions were mildly daunting, and I can imagine some being put-off voting. On examination, it was straightforward, but I feel the presentation could be improved.

postal votingIn short, the process was:

  • Sign a declaration that one is the person named on the form, in the presence of a witness who countersigns the form and states his/her address.
  • Vote on the ballot paper.
  • Place the ballot paper into Envelope 'A'.
  • Place Envelope 'A' and the declaration of identity into Envelope 'B', ensuring that a bar code aligns with a 'window' in the envelope.

This is a trivial point, but avoidably foolish: as the image shows, the pre-folded ballot paper was much larger than both envelopes, so had to be folded again. Why not pre-fold the paper to fit the envelopes, or provide larger envelopes? The outer envelope used to send me the whole voting pack was of an appropriate size, so why not the others?

A more serious point, though possibly a little paranoid, is that there was far less assurance of a secret ballot than the usual process of voting in person.

If I attended a polling station, my identity might be checked, then I'd be given an unnumbered ballot paper. Short of fingerprints or DNA testing, there'd be no means of subsequently matching my identity to a specific ballot paper.
In the postal vote, a bar code and serial number on the ballot paper corresponded to those on the declaration of identity, which obviously stated my name and address. The intention was for the election officials to open Envelope 'B', file the declaration, then process Envelope 'A' entirely separately, but one had to simply trust them to do so; I don't.

Not that anyone would be interested in my vote, but I'm speaking in general. It wouldn't be difficult to sideline the votes of prominent people, such as suspected political activists. More worryingly, it would be entirely possible to trace votes back to voters.
Previously, one could have the confidence that even if state agencies had such an intent, the sheer volume of papers would render the exercise impractical, but bar codes can be scanned at a rate of hundreds per hour, and automatically matched to the computerised electoral register.

Hypothetically, a list of those who voted for, say, the BNP, could be compiled and cross-checked against the employee records of local education authorities, identifying teachers who secretly support that distasteful but entirely legal far-right organisation. By exercising their democratic right, such teachers could affect their career advancement. But that wouldn't happen in the good old UK - yeah, right.
Imagine if this facility had been available to the British Government in Northern Irish elections at the height of the violent times. Do you really think they wouldn't have exploited the ability to identify 'troublemakers'?


Sorry to disappoint you, but your ballot paper in a polling station was always numbered too, and that number was written down beside your name when you asked for your ballot paper. It's always been possible to link your vote to you.

Posted by musicandcomedy at August 13, 2004 10:13 AM

That's incorrect.

The ballot paper was entirely anonymous. Nothing was written against my name when I was handed the paper. The paper was stamped with a braille-like mark to identify it as genuine, but the stamp was specific to the polling station, not the individual voter.

That was the case in Aberystwyth when I lived there 14 years ago, was the case in Lancaster in every previous election in the past decade, and my mother, who has worked as an electoral assistant in North East Wales confirms that's the system there, too.

Posted by NRT at August 13, 2004 10:28 AM

Well it should have been the case, it's been the law since 1872. The following is taken from Hart District Council website, but a similar section is on many of the elections office websites:

"Some voters have complained in the past that elections in the UK are not secret because there is a number on the back of the ballot paper and also on the counterfoil of the ballot paper book the ballot paper is taken from. It is claimed that a ballot paper could be matched with the counterfoil, which records the electoral number of the voter. It is true that, in theory, votes could be traced in this way."

By law, ballot papers must have a unique number, which is linked to a voter through the addition of their number on the counterfoil stub. (I confess I got this the wrong way round in my earlier post).

Posted by musicandcomedy at August 20, 2004 03:25 PM
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