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7 May, 2005

Not-so-secret ballot

Just one more election-related entry – probably!

Last year, I complained that the postal voting system wasn't anonymous, and votes could be readily matched to voters.  'Musicandcomedy' commented that 'in-person' ballot papers have always been that way, and voting by post didn't change that.  In my experience, that wasn't the case, and there had been no way to trace an individual ballot paper to a voter, only to a voting station.

In Thursday's election, 'Musicandcomedy' was proved right in Lancaster, but I'm still reasonably sure it's never been that way before, and my contact in election admin in North-East Wales reaffirmed that ballot papers there are nominally untraceable.

The issue is this: when one enters a polling station, a clerk checks one's name and address against the electoral register, and calls out one's register number. The other clerk removes a blank ballot paper from a book – and writes the register number on the counterfoil. This is the part to which I object, and I'm almost certain I'd have noticed if it had been done in previous elections. The counterfoil is printed with a serial number, which also appears on the back of the ballot paper. The clerk then punches the paper with a mark unique to the polling station. One votes in a private cubicle, folds the paper then returns to the table, shows the punched mark to the clerk, and drops it into a sealed box.

Hence, a paper with a unique serial number can be matched to a counterfoil featuring my register number, and a vote for 'Party X' can be matched to my name and address.
The serial number has indeed always appeared on the paper and counterfoil, but apart from telling an investigator that the paper rightfully came from a book issued to a particular voting station, confirmed by that station's punched mark, the vote was truly anonymous. In Wales (and, I'd presumed, here in NW England), one of the (several) reasons there are two clerks, one with the electoral register, one with the ballot papers, is that the clerk with the books of papers isn't allowed to have a writing implement on his/her person, specifically so that papers can't be marked.

Does it matter? See the earlier entry for my objections.


The votes during elections haven't been truly anonymous for a long time, ballot papers have had printed index numbers on them which are noted against the voting register.

It is however a crime punishable with prison time to attempt to associate a ballot with an individual. In some circumstances a judge can order the papers to be associated with an individual.

They're kept for a year then destroyed, or maybe, sent off to MI5 for processing.

Posted by Mr. Precision at June 10, 2005 11:52 PM

As I said in that earlier entry: you're mistaken, at least about the situation here. Maybe other regions have different regulations, but in past general elections in Lancaster and in Wales, ballot papers have been anonymous. I'm 90% sure about the Lancaster ones not absolutely certain, admittedly but I am totally certain about the Welsh ones, from personal experience and a contact in election admin.

In the recent election, papers were potentially traceable to voters, but not in the precise way you mentioned. Serial numbers of papers weren't recorded against names/voter numbers on the register, voter numbers were written on the counterfoils of the papers. I was paying particular attention, and again, I'm certain. One clerk called out the voter number, and the other wrote it on the counterfoil, but not vice versa (at that time, anyway; I suppose it's conceivable that there was further processing after the event, but I doubt it).

"It is however a crime punishable with prison time to attempt to associate a ballot with an individual."

'Fraid I'm a bit too cynical to be confident about that. I'm sure you're right in principle, but if it's a government agency doing the illegal matching, who's going to stop them?
In my view, so long as the ballot paper can be proved to be genuine and valid, the vote marked upon it should be truly anonymous, not identifiable by the police, security services, judiciary, anyone.

Posted by NRT at June 11, 2005 12:43 AM
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