In case you weren’t aware, I love elections. There are so many aspects to like, enjoy and utterly adore about the electoral process. The campaigns of different parties can be insightful, revealing and tell us lots about the different leaders (and that’s before you mention the regular gaffes without which no election would be complete!). Election night coverage always keeps me awake as the different results trickle through, pundits desperately try to predict what this means for the country. The aftermath of any such campaign can result in, well, immense volatility.
All of those things were up in the air this year. I was so relieved when I heard the 2021 local elections were going ahead, not simply because of my adoration for them. Over a year since the last democratic public exercise, I thought it was essential that the electorate were able to have their involvement, their say, on decisions made by politicians. This was not least be the case regarding extensive coronavirus restrictions, which the public deserved to have some input into.
Yet clearly, coronavirus and the lockdown restrictions altered what style of campaign could take place. Party workers were allowed to leaflet doors and speak to residents. Indeed, I had a few campaigners knock on my door, which created the space for an interesting public discussion on the issues of the day. But no party leader or candidate would be able to address a large crowd - rallies can be so important, even if they don’t represent the country, for creating the illusion of momentum and galvanisation of a party.
Similarly, election night shows were not the same. Due to Covid restrictions, most places didn’t start counting until Friday morning, with results trickling in throughout the weekend. Election night shows were near non-existent because there wouldn’t have been anything to talk about. You can only expectation manage and speculate on the results for so long, at some point a programme has to deal in actual reporting.
What of the day itself? The media were banned from discussing the election while polls were open. Individuals went along to put their crosses in the box and in the ballot box. Unlike most of my musings, this is is something I have the authority to write about (Jackie Weaver would be pleased). For, on election day itself (6th May) I was involved with the electoral process as a poll clerk in Leamington.
It was the kind of job made for someone like me. I have never actually voted in a polling station. In the 2019 general election, I was in Edinburgh on election day so completed a postal vote. Similarly, my polling station for these elections was different to where I was working. One of the many rules of being a poll clerk is not leaving the polling station during the day, in order to maintain the election’s integrity. As such, a postal vote became essential.
I felt as well prepared for the day as it’s possible for a novice to feel. I knew there would be a team with me, including a more senior Presiding Officer who would have the ultimate authority to make sure everything went to plan. My job was to be the cog in the wheel, ensuring the process rumbled on and that everyone who could vote was able to.
The day itself I knew would be long and arduous. Even though I was sitting down for most of it, being at the polling station from 7am to 10pm, plus additional time for the opening and closing of poll, I knew could cause trouble for even the most ardent of politicos like myself. As such, an early night on the Wednesday evening became essential.
I was up at 4.40am, with three alarms set, just to make sure I definitely arrived on time. I was there by about 6.10am, where thankfully the small polling booths had already been erected. My job was to blutack various signs. There were the usual ones, which referenced the different elections taking place, alongside various Covid safety measures that had been introduced. Voters wore masks, tried to keep their distance and had to regularly sanitise their hands. The polling station became one of the most sterile places in town.
Because the elections last year were cancelled, there were double the amount of issues for people to vote on. District council elections, county council, police and crime commissioner, numerous electoral processes were occurring which both the voters, and we as polling staff had to keep up with. As we were sat behind a protective screen, masks weren’t required for us, which I have to say was a pleasant benefit of the day and made concentration far easier.
Generally, the role and day was quite repetitive, as you would expect. The first voter should be treated in exactly the same way as the last, along with every voter in-between. My job was to ask the voter to confirm their name and address, find their details on the register of electors and then call out their elector number.
My colleague then added their elector number to the list containing the ballot paper numbers. One of the main tasks for the day was ensuring the list of ballot paper numbers was never out of sync with the ballots distributed, to ensure all papers were going to the correct individuals. My colleague then gave voters the ballot papers and they crossed the boxes. In reality, even though it’s possible for every ballot paper to be linked back to the original voter, this would only even happen if there were allegations of electoral fraud.
Which brings me nicely onto the issue of government proposals to introduce voter ID. Practically, not everyone has such ID like a passport or a driver’s licence. Apparently local councils can issue free ID to anyone who needs it, but how do individuals prove their identity to the local council? On a purely technical level, if such a system was to work, the ID would have to include a photo of the person and be uniformly available to everyoneThe government would therefore have to introduce identity cards, a relic from New Labour which fundamentally changed the relationship between the citizen and the state and would have permanently reduced civil liberties if Theresa May hadn’t, correctly, abolished them.
Such calls for voter ID are trying to solve a problem that isn’t there. Hardly anyone is ever prosecuted for electoral fraud. I had no cases of somebody unable to vote because an individual had already voted in their name. Were there such waves of people being disenfranchised, I’m sure we’d hear far more about it in the media, with newspapers running appropriate campaigns of those disenfranchised. We don’t hear about the problem because it is hardly there.
Similarly, a significant proportion of the public, not least in the times of Covid, choose to vote by post, have a proxy or vote from abroad. How would voter ID take account for their circumstances? Would the proxy bring ID for themselves, the person they were voting for or both? Any laws that are ever introduced should be trying to solve a problem. Statistically, the problem is not there. Practically, voter ID brings a whole host of new issues. On principle, such measures, as argued by Paddy Hannam in Spiked, caused a distrust of voters and unnecessarily increase the powers of the state. Such proposals deserve to fail.
Checking people’s names off continued for the rest of the day. There was an early rush of people in the morning, presumably before heading to work. Unsurprisingly, we mainly had elderly voters during the day, ready to complete the democratic duty they had no doubt done for decades. The busiest times were between 4pm and 7pm, which included parents with their children, people commuting home from work and those who perhaps had forgotten an election was on.
There was no final queue of people at 10pm. Despite the lighter evenings, it was dark by that point and, quite frankly, if people won’t going to vote by that point, they wouldn’t be bothering at all. We tidied everything up, tried to ensure the hall was in a fit state and that was that: the end. The process of democracy itself - putting crosses in a box with a pencil, strangely seemed so incidental and insignificant. In reality, it is something nobody can ever take for granted. Being poll clerk, if nothing else, most certainly taught me that.
As an aside, people had been encouraged to bring their own pencils/pens because of the pandemic. However, we had plenty spare for those who hadn’t remembered. After they used their pencil, we asked them to place it in a box marked ‘Dirty Pencils’….well we thought it was funny, at least, and the chortles it bought certainly made the day go by a lot quicker.
Noah enjoys writing a blog and drinking tea