Monday, 27 June 2016

How voting works from the other side of the table

On the day of the European Union Referendum (23rd of July 2016) I found myself discussing how the voting system worked from the other side of the table.

What are those Poll Clerks doing? What do all the numbers mean? What happens to them? Why do you not have pens (#PenIsBest and #UsePen being popular on the day)?

A good starting place for anyone looking into this side of things is the Handbook for polling station staff (pdf) from the Electoral Commission. This is given (as far as I know) to every member of polling station staff. It covers everything from roles and responsibilities  of polling staff to how to set up a polling station right the way through to how to transport things back to the count at the end of the day.

The main question I was asked about was what does the number on my poll card mean? Can it be used to track my vote?

The answer to this is a little complex, but simply put: Yes, it could technically be used to track your vote. In reality, it would be a huge amount of work to do so.

Most of us are used to what a poll card looks like. Below is a nicely annotated example one from Horsham Council:

The number that we're interested in in the Voter Registration number. It's made up of two parts. 
The first is a text code. This identifies which polling station you vote at. This will normally be a two or three letter code. 
The second half is normally numerical. This is the number that the poll clerks are looking for on the list that they have. This list is the Register of Electors. It holds the names of everyone eligible to vote at that polling station, and their elector number. 
Elector numbers are quite interesting. They are (as far as I know) issued once per year. If you were on the register at the start of the year, you will have a number like 1363. If you have been added during the year, you have a number like 1243/1. At the start of every new year, electors who have left the area are removed, and every elector is given a new number.
The Register of Electors also has a number of codes against the names on it. These help polling staff tell who is eligible to vote at any given election. The most common code is an 'A', for Absent Voter. These are all of the voters who have chosen to vote by post., and are therefore not eligible to be given a ballot paper in the polling station.

Once you have been found on the Register of Electors, and it's been confirmed that you are eligible to vote, your number will be read out by the poll clerk, and the second poll clerk will write it down on the Corresponding Number List.

The Corresponding Number List is preprinted with the number that is on the back of every ballot paper. This number is unique to each paper. Your voter registration number is then written against the unique number that corresponds to the number that is on the back of your ballot paper. You are then handed the ballot paper, which you go off and fill in in one of the booths, and then put into the ballot box.

So, in this way, your voter registration number is tied to your ballot paper which you have marked with your vote. Therefore, theoretically, your vote could be tied back to you, and someone could find out how you voted.

This is why what happens to the Corresponding Number List is so important. When the polling station closes, this list is sealed into an envelope, This envelope is taken back to the count, but is secured well away from the ballot papers. My understanding is that assuming that there is no challenge to the election, both ballot papers and the corresponding number list are destroyed after 21 days have followed the election. The corresponding number list envelopes should only ever be opened as part of a court challenge to an election, and only then if the court orders them opened.

To track your vote, someone would need not just the coresponding number list, but also the correct Register of Electors, and every ballot from the ballot box. Given that a low turnout might see 3/400 ballot papers in a box, it gets difficult to trace them. Even more so once counting the votes has taken place, and all of the ballot papers have ended up mixed together

The numbers on the back of the ballot papers also provide a check that the ballot box hasn't been stuffed. The ballot paper numbers issued to each polling station are known, and the first and last paper issued each hour is recorded. This allows an hourly count of ballots cast (which may be asked for by polling agents) and for the number of ballots in the box to be checked at the start of the count process.

The marked Register of Electors, which shows who has voted, is sold by councils to a limited number of people proscribed by law.

Why do we not have pens in the polling booths? Well, pencils are easy to use, don't stop working, and don't smudge. If you want to bring a pen along and use it, great. For all the conspiracy theories around poll boxes being opened, I'm really not sure at what point they think that anyone has time to  get a box out of the back of their cars,open even one of the boxes, rub out a load of votes and enter a new vote, then reseal the box and bring it back to the count without it being noticed.

This has all ended up being written a little late at night, so if there's anything else you'd like to know, please do ask in the comments below, and I'll do my best to answer.

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