Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comments on ballot papers don't deliver a message

At some point I'll post my more general reflections on the council and European elections last week but for now I want to focus on one aspect that doesn't get much discussion - spoilt ballot papers at the count.

For those who've never been to an election count, one of the important later stages is the adjudication. This is when all ballot papers identified by the counting as "Doubtful" - i.e. those that don't seemingly express a clear & correct number of intentions - are ruled on by either the Returning Officer or a formally designated deputy. Candidates and/or their agents are entitled to attend to witness the rulings though challenges must be submitted through the legal process. Crucially it's often the case that not every candidate/party is represented at this but that's their own decision.

Coming late in the count and usually straight after a long and intense campaign, all the candidates and agents are invariably tired and focusing their remaining energies on spotting valid votes for their own side. The ballot papers also go by fairly fast, especially in a borough such as Newham, which has many doubtful votes.

Some votes are ruled as valid and returned to the pile. Others are ruled out for one of the following reasons:
  • Want of an official mark
  • Being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty
  • Voting for more candidates than voter was entitled to
  • Writing or mark by which voter could be identified
The first is rare nowadays due to changes in the way ballot papers are designed, printed and issued. The fourth should be self-explanatory though it includes polling numbers as well as names. The third is also known as "Overvoting" and is particularly common when there are multiple ballot papers given out at the same time - in my opinion the vast majority of these that I saw last week were either people who read the instructions on one ballot paper and followed them on the other two or people who put both their first and second preference for Mayor in the same column.

The second is something of a catch-all category, including blank ballot papers, ticks and crosses in so awkward a place they couldn't be determined, various attempts to vote for "None" and a variety of comments.

Why people cast spoilt ballot papers is ultimately known only to them, though I suspect a lot of the blanks come from people being given three papers and mistakenly assuming they can only vote on one of them. I'd be interested to hear people's experience from other multiple election counts but I'm not persuaded they're a sign of a mass deliberate "Vote Blank" campaign.

The comments are usually clearer, expressing dissatisfaction with some or all of the candidates or the absence of a particular party. But frankly they don't make any impact beyond comedy and irritation - it's a common opinion at counts that nobody who has seen how this process works would bother trying to send politicians a message by the ballot paper. The official returns bundle them in with the blanks and mistakes. The agents are primarily concerned to a) save good votes and b) work out where their supporters made mistakes & how to get them to get it right next time. Nobody is transcribing messages. If the agents report any of the messages back to party activists it will be for a laugh rather than anything else.

So all the essays and brief comments scribbled on ballot papers are ultimately ineffective. If you wish to not vote or to cast a blank then you're perfectly entitled to. But if you want to send a message to politicians in general or in particular, this is not the way to do it. Try email or Twitter or even, to show how serious you are, snail mail.


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