Monday 26 May 2014

The Magic Voter Summoning Book

Well, election day rolled around again last week, meaning that I spent 15.5 hours sitting in a church hall issuing ballot papers for the local and European elections. It actually went quite well - busier than I expected, and no really tricky queries, except that a nearby polling station failed to read their register correctly and kept sending some of their voters to my station. Fortunately they were all good-natured about it when I had to send them back.

I had a new Poll Clerk this time. For those not up on the lingo: the Presiding Officer (me) is the person in charge of the polling station, whereas the Poll Clerk is there to help out the Presiding Officer. They both work the same hours, but the Presiding Officer is paid more, as they are ultimately responsible for the whole thing running smoothly, including correctly completing all the ballot papers, taking charge of the ballot box, and transporting it plus all the ballot papers to and from the ballot paper count (no mean feat with two full sets of ballot papers). We also have some cool legal powers to challenge people who we suspect of impersonating other voters, ordering people out of the polling station, and if necessary opening up an emergency polling station if the one that's supposed to open is locked or there's a fire. (The flipside of this, and the reason we get the extra money, is that if it all goes wrong a la Jesmond polling station at the last General Election, guess whose neck is on the block?)

Incidentally, the Presiding Officer is usually not the person who greets you as you come in and does most of the talking. It's more common for the Poll Clerk to be in charge of marking people off on the register, whilst the Presiding Officer issues the ballot papers, deals with queries, and watches the ballot box. Continuous custody of the ballot box is a big part of the job; we are only supposed to leave the ballot box to go for a pee or deal with issues outside the polling station, and even then you can only leave it if the Poll Clerk is around to keep an eye on it. I rather suspect that if it were practical, they'd clamp the box to the Presiding Officer's wrist with handcuffs, like that guy in Ronin.

My Poll Clerk turned out to be an ex-Council employee, who took voluntary redundancy as she was about to retire, and was occupying her time learning to swim and ride a bike. She was also trying to read a book on her Kindle. I never learned the  name or author of the book, and I suspect nor did she, as everytime she opened it, she would get one minute's reading time, then someone else would walk in to vote. By 5pm we were calling it the magical voter-summoning book.

No really difficult queries or customers, although I did have one really classic conversation:

Voter: "Why are the ballot papers marked with pencils, not pens?"

Me: "You can mark them with a pen if you like*, but we have pencils in the booths because they don't run out like pens do."

Voter: "I don't trust that."

Me: "Well, the ballot box is sealed with two seals, it gets sealed closed at the end of the day by me, then taken straight to the count and only opened when they're ready to start counting the ballot papers. If anyone wanted to tamper with a ballot paper, they'd have to get the rubber out in front of two other people on the counting table, the person observing the counting table, plus every other person in the room who happened to be looking, including the police and the local councillors."

Voter: (pause) "I still don't trust that."

Upton Sinclair once commented that it is very hard to get someone to believe something if their salary depends on their not believing it. To that, I can add "and if it interferes with their pet conspiracy theory".

* This is legal, should you wish to do it - so long as your vote is clear, you can mark the ballot paper in pencil, pen or crayon if you like.

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