Monday, 21 July 2008

WRONG: Your vote is secret

Next time you’re engaging in the democratic process, take a look at the back of your ballot paper – you’ll find it’s marked with a unique number. On its own, that number works as a measure against the counterfeiting of ballot papers (as is the “official mark”, a perforation made by the returning officer’s clerks when they hand you the paper). The number, however, corresponds to another on the counterfoil for each paper, which would be fine if that counterfoil did not also record your electoral number.

If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, this means that – in theory – your vote could very easily be traced back to you by The Man.

Don’t panic, though, because in practice it’s not legally possible for The Man to identify your vote except in extreme circumstances. The laws governing elections are very strict, and require that ballot papers are counted face up so that no one can read the number (though this would be very hard to enforce while the papers are removed from the ballot box.) The papers – even the void ones – are then sealed in packets, as are the counterfoils, and returned to the Clerk Of The Crown, who stores them for a year before destroying them. Any deviation from these rules could result in six months in prison for the offending official.

Only the Speaker of the House Of Commons, the High Court or Crown Court can order the opening of the packets, and even then only if they already know that a vote has been fraudulently cast and that the result of the election may be in doubt. The vote-tracing procedure has not been employed in a Parliamentary election since 1911.

In 1998, a Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the numbering system be abandoned, but its findings have not been adopted by the Electoral Commission.

Incidentally, since 1885 the office of Clerk Of The Crown In Chancery has been held by the Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. Another of his duties is to use the unique silver matrix of the Queen to affix the Great Seal Of The Realm. Every document of state comes complete with one of these plastic (formerly wax) medallions embossed with the Queen’s mark and tied on with string. Elevations to the peerage are dark green, actions relating to the Royal family are blue, and the appointment of bishops is red.

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