Friday, May 05, 2006

Fair and transparent elections

I can't vote in the UK, but I'm interested in the electoral process. During one general election, I accompanied the Vol-in-Law to the polls, just to see how it was done. I wasn't sure I would get in, but the poll workers let me stand next to the Vol-in-Law as he placed an X in three boxes on a paper ballot, with only some ugly plywood boards between him and the next voting station for privacy. Then he slipped the folded ballot into a slot in a sealed metal ballot box - and that was it.

I laughed at the primitive nature of it all. Of course, that was before the debacle in 2000 with the hanging chads, the contested election and the Supreme Court choosing our President for us. That was before the specter of black box electronic voting designed and programmed by companies that give tons of soft money to the Republicans.

Last night I attended the count. Attending the count is partly a reward to people who have volunteered in the campaign. It's partly to support your local candidates, win or lose. And it's partly to participate in the political process itself - ensuring that the process is open and fair. (Of course, that means that all parties need to have folks in attending the count).

We watched as the ballot box seals were broken, as the ballots were sorted and counted. We were free to watch over the shoulders of the council workers as they bunched the ballots and they were all counted up. Yes, there were occasional mistakes in the hand counting - but the process was three fold, so there was plenty of opportunity to catch the mistakes.

1. opening the boxes, stacking and counting the ballots (but not the votes) to ensure that the poll tally matched with the ballots that actually arrived at the count
2. sorting the ballots into stacks those that voted all Labour, all Conservative, all Liberal Democrat and "mixed". Each ballot can have up to three votes on it and where votes were split between parties or where there were less than three votes (for example if a person voted only for the Communist or Green parties)
3. Hand counting the mixed ballots - which is done by two people for each stack one reading out the votes, the other marking them down - and they are watched by a third electoral worker (plus the horde of people standing behind them) - and bundling the solid ballots into stacks of equal numbers for easy counting at the end.

Then all the votes are added up, including the postal ballots which are opened earlier in the week with party witnesses.

The whole process took about two hours from the ballots being dumped (carefully) on the counting table to the winners being announced. It's expensive - there was a team of about 15 council workers (who get some nice comps for working the election from about 10pm (when the polls close) until it's done - which could be quite a long time if there's a recount), but they're not paid tons of money, it's also about civic pride.

The counting process seemed remarkably not open to abuse. But of course, that's not the whole story.

The current postal ballot system is rife with fraud. And there isn't too much to stop you getting on to the electoral register in the first place. I'm certain that I could get on the register just by sticking my name down, despite the fact that I'm not entitled to vote. (Most Brits are shocked by this, since many other foreigners can vote - all EU and Commonwealth citizens who are resident here can vote at least in local elections).

Anyway, as a government junkie, I enjoyed it. And it didn't hurt that 2 of the 3 candidates I supported won.

T-tags: , Politics, Current Affairs, United Kingdom, UK, Wandsworth, Democracy, , , voting , electoral process


"John Galt" said...

"...the contested election and the Supreme Court choosing our President for us. That was before the specter of black box electronic voting designed and programmed by companies that give tons of soft money to the Republicans."

You appear a bit conflicted. You don't seem to favour Republicans in the US but support the Tories. Are there considerable conservative differences?

Vol-in-Law said...

Yes, there are considerable conservative differences. :)
Of course most US Republican supporters and most UK Conservatives are decent people, but US politics is several miles to the right of the UK. Also the UK Conservatives are more 'reality based' - more Giuliani than Ashcroft. Speaking personally, I generally like liberal Republican and moderate Democrat politicians. One requirement for all is that they be 'reality based' - ie they proceed by empirical assessment of the facts, Locke not Descartes. This means that with current US politics I strongly supported the Democrats in '04, specifically John Edwards.

Vol-in-Law said...

Incidentally in my experience many US Democrats living in the UK support the Conservatives. If you believe in "Liberty under Law" they're the natural choice. The British Conservatives I know tend to like north-eastern Republicans like Giuliani, McCain is popular too. They don't seem to find it strange we support the Democrats though. Bush & Blair have a lot in common... >:)

"John Galt" said...

Any Raving Looney seats this time?

Vol Abroad said...

Mmm...I'm not sure they're still running since their leader died, maybe a little bit. But I think they usually run for Parliament anyway, I guess they're afraid they might actually win a council seat.

"John Galt" said...

It is evident I need to polish my reading comprehension skills. It is only now clear to me that these were only local council seats in play.