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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Voting in the UK

I have just voted in a UK election for the first time and, despite knowing that there were some differences, was surprised by one particular difference: the presence inside the polling station of "tellers".

For those who have never voted in Australia: the fundamental differences are (a) that voting in Australia is compulsory and (b) the voting is Australia is usually preferential; you number the boxes in order of preference rather than marking just one. This latter difference has important consequences for improving the representation of minorities and, consequently, is being introduced in Scotland as the "Single Transferrable Vote" and some US advocacy groups are promoting it under the name "Instant Run-off Voting".

For those who have never voted in the UK: tellers are party representatives who gather information about who has voted, apparently to allow party officials to go and "help" (or "encourage") voters who haven't shown up to get to a polling place. They are not permitted to enter polling rooms, (typically they are seated in corridors that voters pass through) are not permitted to promote their candidate, but are permitted to ask for a voter's registration number or address. Voters are free to decline of course, but tellers are not required to disclose this to voters, nor even to mention that they are not electoral officials.

Unaware of this practice, I inferred that any person performing information gathering in a polling station would of course be an electoral official, so answered without hesitation the two gentlemen seated at the doorway. It was only upon reflection that it occurred to me that
  • they were writing the number on a pad with a pencil (vs. marking off a roll, as the clerk in the polling room did),
  • they were both recording the same information,
  • one of them was wearing a party logo
and therefore that
  • maybe they weren't electoral officials.
I called the Electoral Services helpline and learned that, sure enough, they are party representatives, that the Electoral Services people aren't too happy about it, but they're permitted and that provision must be made for them as part of a government push to increase voter turnout.

I can't help thinking that this information, while perhaps helping to get a couple more votes cast, is of rather more use to parties in campaign planning. Knowing exactly who (name and address) voted at which station, perhaps even coupled with timing information (the ballot boxes are numbered and are, presumably, filled sequentially) and information gained during canvassing would allow a party to determine with moderate confidence (certainly better than 50%) which way a given individual voted. This doesn't quite compromise the secrecy of the ballot, but it appears to me to get pretty close to doing so.