Democratic Process! A peep into the Secret World of British Elections. Part 2
It's 7.18, and the first voter of the day is making her way across the sparsely gravelled parking area outside the entrance doors! And look, it's old Mrs Flowerday from the cottage opposite the church.
Mrs Flowerday steps inside and hands her polling card to Poll Clerk. Presiding Officer picks up the ballot box with its still open lid and tilts it towards her. “Would you please verify, madam, that the ballot box is empty?”
Old Mrs Flowerday clearly isn't prepared for this protocol. She peers suspiciously. “Yis.”
Poll Clerk: “Florence Edith Flowerday?”
Poll Clerk isn't old enough to remember the Singing Postman - “Ha yew got a loight, bor?” - but he's heard a Norfolk vernacular dialect used on the Bernard Matthews turkey burger adverts on T.V. “Thass boot-a-fool ...”
“Number One Church Cottages?”
Presiding Officer detaches a white ballot paper from the top of the first virginal block, writes '29' in pencil on the counterfoil, slips the paper under the hole puncher and pushes down the lever, folds the paper and hands it to her. She waddles over to the middle booth.
“Looks loike bean a grat ol diay! Do oi pup it in tha bux now thun?”
Presiding Officer has closed the lid of the ballot box. In the top of its lid is a slot which can be opened or closed by means of a sliding metal plate controlled by a raised metal loop. He pulls the slide back to reveal the slot. The sound it makes rather resembles the first part of working the bolt of a Lee-Enfield rifle. “In the slot. You're our first customer of the day!”
Florence Edith positively beams with pride. “Ho! Well ... cheery-ho henny-how! I got ta git my husbund his breckfist. Ha' a good diay now!”
As Florence Edith makes her way back across the parking area Presiding Officer now sets about carefully tying down the lid of the ballot box with cut lengths of the half inch red ribbon tape provided by means of the flat welded metal loops on the leading edge and sides of its body and lid. This done he then gets Poll Clerk to hold a lighted match under the end of the stick of red sealing wax, and proceeds to carefully dribble molten wax onto the knots he's tied. Then for good measure he reinforces the tape with pieces of the wire, and adds a bit of wax to the twisted ends there too.
Poll clerk suggests putting the kettle on, and disappears out to the kitchen ...
Time is now 9.04. Poll Clerk has by now marked off six more names on the Register as having voted. No claims of impersonation thus far! A scrunch of tyres comes on the gravel outside. The aroma of Poll Clerk's fish paste sandwiches - he's had two out of twenty already - hangs vaguely in the air. A police motorcyclist steps in with a friendly greeting. If our polling station were to be situated in Tower Hamlets or Moss Side it would likely have a fixed police presence throughout the hours of poll. But out here in the sticks one, maybe two, passing calls is it. Not that P.C. Mike Hailwood is bothered. Cruising round polling stations makes a welcome break from fighting crime. “Not got a riot on your hands yet then!”
Ten minutes later and a new member of the fixed cast arrives! Sometimes referred to as 'tellers', Henry Hewitt is one of the not so small army of party agents who on election days loiter around the entrances/exits of polling stations asking voters for their polling numbers. Their raison d'etre is to establish who has voted and who has not so that later on in the day more reluctant voters may yet be persuaded by means of a personal visit to engage in the democratic process in favour of the agent's particular political party. But - and it's an important point this - no voter is in any way obliged to reveal their polling number to a teller, nor indeed speak to them at all if they wish not to do so. It is also entirely at the discretion of the Presiding Officer as to whether tellers may station themselves in the polling station itself, and indeed most insist on them sitting outside. Nor are tellers permitted to wear their party rosettes while on duty: 'No candidate nor party agent shall display badges, colours, or other device as to indicate political allegiance within the curtillage of a polling station.' And the presiding officer's legal word is final! Many years ago a larger than life - and large - Liberal M.P. blatantly flouted that last point in a Barnsley polling station, responding with a gruff “Get stuffed!” to the P.O.'s request to remove his king sized yellow rosette - and all on live T.V. - which made the final outcome all the more humiliating. Blue rosette firmly stuffed in pocket Henry bids a “Good morning,” to the polling station staff, and is in turn offered one of the hall's chairs for his three hour stint just outside the door. He's already anticipating his lunchtime whiskey and tonic.
The steady trickle of voters exercising their democratic rights goes on. Over forty now, although as ever the 'surge' will come in the early evening. The day is now fine and hot. Poll Clerk looking through the Register enquires of Presiding Officer the exact meaning of 'proxy'. “When a voter who can't attend an election in person, say a student at university or someone working at sea, nominates someone else to cast their vote for them, although there is still nothing to prevent them from voting in person provided their name is on the local register and the proxy vote hasn't been cast.”
“But if a student say registers themselves in two places then they could theoretically vote twice?”
Presiding Officer nods. “It happens.”
“So what if our blind voter comes in?”
Outside a silver B.M.W. swings to halt on the sparse gravel. A Union Flag sticker adorns its off side rear window ...
“They whisper their choice to me in the booth and I mark their ballot. If a drunk voter comes in I have to establish that they know what they're doing. If I'm satisfied they do, they can vote.”
Poll Clerk ponders: “So what would be the theoretical worst case scenario?”
Mr Presiding Officer smiles. We're entering into the realms of electoral folklore now! “A blind, drunken, Jewish merchant seaman with a registered proxy vote shown cast coming in at one minute before close of poll on a Saturday.”
Poll Clerk wonders if he's being initiated into some kind of Enid Blyton secret society. A stocky bearded man in an open necked shirt, a pregnant lady in a black smock clutching another youngster, plus a little boy of about four are climbing out of the silver B.M.W.'s wide open doors ...
“Elections in this country take place by tradition on Thursdays. But it is only by tradition. Any government may hold an election on any day but a Sunday. Saturday being the sabbath for those of the Jewish faith statutory dispensations exist enabling such people to vote the day preceding poll.”
“So how would you respond to such a person?”
The B.M.W. family troop in pointedly ignoring Henry-the-Teller. “Brian and Mary Strong. We're here to vote.”
Poll Clerk checks, and re-checks, his 297 names. He turns to Presiding Officer. “Names are not on the Register.”
Leaning over Presiding Officer runs his eye down the list just to be sure. “Sorry, your names are not on the section of Register of Electors for this polling station. Are you resident here?”
“Yes we're resident! Brian and Mary Strong! Number thirteen Pratt Close!” The four year old boy is circling round arms outstretched making Messerschmidt noises. The soles of his union flag patterned trainers patter on the bare wooden floor. Mary Strong looks faintly embarrassed.
Presiding Officer explains about the Local Register of Electors. “Have you recently moved in? You'll be eligible to vote at your previous place of registration.” Clutching her small daughter with one hand, and her swelling tummy with the other, Mary takes a couple of steps backward. The family moved from Devon just three months ago.
“So you're saying that because you haven't got us on this register thing of yours we can't exercise our democratic rights even though we live here!” Brian's furious baritone reverberates off the flaky green and cream painted walls. A fleshy palm crashes down onto the table. In the doorway Henry Hewitt looks the other way ...
“I graduated in politics at Bristol! No, let me guess! It's more than yer bloody jobsworth ...!”
If Mary takes another backward step she'll hit the wall. Another figure barges in. Walter Pratt. Seventy-three years old, and born here. Been on the parish council nigh on forty years. Even got a close named after him on the new development over the old rubbish tip site. This is his village, and his village hall, and he's waiting on no man. He comes straight to the point. But even families as illustrious as the Pratts can throw up the odd black sheep now and again it would seem ...
“Oi'm hare ta vut for my bouy! Ivor Pratt, twelve Pratt Close. He cun't vut in parson 'cos he be on remund in Norwich jail for suffin thut I'll ha yew know he dunt do, but he arthurise me ta vut on his behaff!”
The Register shows no 'P' for proxy against any of the named Pratts. Not even Ivor. Presiding Officer begins to explain about pre-registration of proxy voters and unconvicted persons in custody. He gets interupted: “Okay, that's it chum! I want your name, and chummy's here too, the name of your supervisor, and I want them now! No jumped up little town hall clerk on a day out is going to deny us our democratic rights! And what's more ...”
“... so are yew gon ta give me a vuttin' paerper for my bouy, or do oi ha'a go dun tha phun bux an' cull tha pulice! Yew wunt oi do thut, ha?”
Oh what dear, indulgent reader, is our poor hero to do? (As Jane Austen might have put it.)
Well fortunately our hero still has a trump to play. He tears three pink ballot papers from their slim block, puts them through the hole puncher, and hands them out. The 'Tendered Ballot Paper' as it's correctly termed has been the saviour of many a potential polling station fracas! Issued at the discretion of the P.O. if the normal criteria for voting is not met, the tendered ballots may be taken into account only if the outcome of the election is otherwise undecided. One may also be given in exchange for a returned spoiled ballot paper, or in a case of alleged impersonation where a voter is shown as having already voted but claims, “That wasn't me!” There is a separate return for the P.O. to make out for each one issued. Although he's not been strictly correct in issuing tendered ballots to the Strongs, most P.O.'s faced with a similar situation would do so. The ultimate decision as to their validity rest with the Returning Officer at the time of the count.
Brian drops his into the slot. “So ... er ... what do we have to do to get on this register then?”
Presiding Officer explains to the Strongs that come September they will automatically receive an annual form of electoral registration from their District Council, and remember to add four year old Herman for the year that he turns eighteen. Brian looks sheepish and Mary smiles apologetically.
Going out Walter Pratt wishes Henry Hewitt a cheery: “No I dunt know no bloody number!”
Time is 11.15 precisely. Presiding Officer has stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and has been strictly unofficially updating Henry Hewitt on the poll numbers of the two other voters who declined to give them. A sparkling tartan red M.G.B. roadster bearing a silver on black E' prefix plate roars up. A long legged girl clambers out. From the primrose peaked cap atop her blonde hair to the marigold boots on her feet her attire follows a common colour theme. With clouds of dust billowing from its spinning rear wheels, the red M.G. at once reverses away again. Miranda walks nervously towards the polling station entrance. She has a canary coloured shoulder bag, and is self consciously holding a large yellow clip board to her youthful bosom. Another teller then. Knowing as he does the rule regarding political colours outside polling stations Presiding Officer glances at Henry Hewitt. But old Henry is already on his feet and is ostentatiously dusting down the seat of his chair with a blue spotted hankie. “There you are! Make yourself comfy, m'dear!”
“Oh ... uh ... thanks.” Miranda, who's still a virgin in more ways than one, hopes this doesn't count as fraternizing with the enemy. Her pretty features flush in her confusion. Somewhere deep inside Henry ancient memories are briefly stirred. His thoughts of the moment are non political. Letting the question of colour pass, Presiding Officer passes Henry out a replacement chair.
Slowly the hours tick by as a nation quietly decides ...
It's 5.10. Another ninety minutes or so - the time span of a football match - and things will get a little busier for an hour or so. Presiding Officer stifles a yawn. Miranda is long gone. No one seemed even to notice the red M.G. making its return call. Henry too disappeared for several hours, but appears to be back once more now. Another middle aged lady has been keeping him company for the past hour. Poll Clerk counts his remaining four sandwiches and suggests yet another pot of tea. The kitchen here is surprisingly well equipped. He wonders if Miranda will be sitting outside some other station's door ...
A new arrival. Poll Clerk puts his head round the kitchen door and makes to return to his place. Presiding Officer indicates to him to carry on. Presiding Officer receives the lady's polling card.
“Mrs Dorothy Anne Squireslady, The Old Hall?”
“That is correct.” Her diction is perfect. Grey haired, fifty something but looking younger, she wears a huge blue rosette in the left lapel of her waxed green shooting jacket. A diamond ringed left hand at once goes up to cover the greater part of it. She favours Presiding Officer with a brief, reassuring smile. It's okay, I know the rules. Vote cast Mrs Squireslady joins the two tellers outside. Watching through the open door Presiding Officer notices she is sitting herself down in a fold-out shooting seat she appears to have brought with her. The big blue rosette is unpinned and now resides face down on her lap. His gaze moves up to the top of the parking area. A mid-green Range Rover is parked on the roadside verge there, where it will need to be passed by every voter yet to come in. And it is covered from bonnet to tailgate in blue posters with four more mounted for good measure on makeshift boards tied pyramid fashion onto its roof rack.
Will be continued ...
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