Tales from the polling station: what working for the elections office has taught me about our voting system

At yesterday’s Parliamentary General Election, I was a presiding officer at one of the hundreds of polling stations across the UK, and here’s a round-up of my observations.

You know the drill (I hope): you walk up to the desk, state your name and address, get ticked off the register and grab your ballot paper.

The five minutes that follow are the most important way for you to make your voice heard, and it couldn’t be done without the group of people sitting behind that desk.

Poll clerks and presiding officers are employed by the elections office as representatives to help you through your voting experience.

Whilst you’re in the polling station for five minutes, they’re usually in there for 16 hours, from when the polls open at 7AM right up until closing at 10PM, with an extra half hour either side for admin.

They distribute ballot papers, ensure the secrecy of the poll and make sure everything is set for the counters at the other end.

But beyond the duties that come with the role is the chit-chat that ensues with voters throughout the day.

Accessibility issues

The election was called last minute.

And that’s fine for most people. You have a whole 15 hours in which you can vote, so no matter what plans you have during the day, you should be able to make it.

But what that meant for the Elections Office was that they had a matter of weeks to venue, staff and organise their polling station.

At such short notice, usual venues were already booked, which meant some polling stations had to be moved, much to the dismay of some voters.

And whilst moving a polling station 30 seconds down the road may not seem like a big change to some, it spelled havoc for disabled voters.

Our new venue meant a lack of accessibility. The walkway was not wide enough for wheelchairs to fit through and people on crutches risked slipping due to the bad weather.

How many voters did we lose because of this?

The UK is home to 7 million disabled people. If accessibility issues were abundant across the country, this could mean that over 17% of the population missed out on their vote simply because of short notice.

The pen thing

Have you ever used an eraser?

If you have, you’ll know that when you rub something out, even though the pencil disappears, the paper is still marked and you can see where the pencil has been.

I’m going to make a promise to you now:

NOT ONE PERSON is going to rub your vote out.

You do not need to bring your own pen because no-one has the time to rub out your vote and write their own.

Poll clerks and presiding officers do not even have access to your votes once they go into the ballot box because the box is sealed.

And counters are under scrutiny on many different levels to ensure their honesty.

Whilst bringing a pen to a polling station doesn’t actually affect staff (bring one if you really want to, no-one cares), it brings their integrity into question; do you really think they have such a bitter disrespect for democracy?

The student debate

One voter was particularly perturbed by the fact that students were able to register in two different constituencies based on their home and university addresses.

The issue was the ease of students being able to vote twice.

But without this system, would some students be able to vote at all?

If a student from Ipswich goes to university in Swansea, would they be able to make the six-hour, cross country journey it would take to get home? Is public transport reliable enough?

Regardless of the answer, voting twice is against the law, student or not.

Each ballot paper has a serial number that is associated with your voter number, so if a student were to vote twice, they could be found out.

“They’re all useless anyway”

If I had a pound for every time I heard this phrase yesterday, I’d have a similar amount of money to the figure plastered on the side of the Brexit bus.

Perhaps politicians are all useless, but voting is one of the most important things you can do to make sure the country is run democratically.

You’re voting for the party and its policies, not the leader.

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