Trust in elections and those that organise them
Rumours about votes being rubbed out, or ballot papers being added to counts, at UK elections are just that – unfounded rumours.
Peter Stanyon is the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, the professional body representing the council officers who run elections across the UK.
Before joining the AEA, Peter ran elections in a variety of council himself, so knows what goes on behind the scenes. He tells us about the security measures in place that keep our votes safe.
How can I trust election staff are neutral?
Elections may be run from council offices, but politicians are not involved in how they are run. The Returning Officer – usually the council’s chief executive or a senior staff member – is appointed to run the election impartially.
The same goes for election officers, who work in what are known as politically restricted posts. They cannot be involved in promoting or actively supporting political candidates or parties.
Temporary election staff are also required to be neutral and asked to sign a declaration that they are. If they are not, they are not allowed to work at the election.
What security measures are in place to stop people stealing votes in polling stations?
Every ballot paper has a unique number and a special mark printed on it, and every polling station is only given enough ballot papers for the people registered to vote there.
Before the polls open at 7am, empty ballot boxes must be shown to everyone in the room and then sealed shut – apart from the slot ballot papers are posted through. Political candidates or their agents can watch this.
To stop people voting more than once, electors must give their name and address which is checked and marked on the register of electors before a ballot paper is given to them.
Polling station teams are also checked up on, with council polling station inspectors popping in unannounced. Police officers also often drop in to keep an eye on how things are running.
When the polls close and the last elector has voted, the ballot box is completely sealed shut so no more ballot papers can be added. Candidates and their agents can again watch this process and can add their own seal for extra security.
At the count, supervisors check ballot box seals and only open them in full view of candidates and agents, who watch them being opened and every ballot paper tipped onto counting tables.
The ballot papers are counted, and the number is checked to make sure it matches the number given out in the polling station. If they don’t, they are counted again. Unused ballot papers are also checked to make sure none are missing.
If there is any concern about fraud or wrongdoing, the police become involved. Electoral fraud is serious and can be punished by fines and prison sentences.
What about postal votes?
Postal vote applications ask for dates of birth and a signature – personal identifiers – which are then scanned and kept on file. When a postal vote pack is returned, the voter must supply these personal identifiers again. If they are not the same, the ballot paper is rejected.
Postal votes are opened at designated dates and times with candidates, election agents and appointed postal vote agents entitled to attend and watch. Returned packs are opened, personal identifiers checked and ballot papers are then counted before being placed in a ballot box which is sealed shut and securely stored until the election count.
Can I check my vote has been counted correctly?
No, because the secrecy of the poll means nobody knows who voted for which candidates. The only time votes can be matched with voters is when a court-appointed judge orders all election paperwork to be made available during an electoral fraud investigation. This is incredibly rare.
Why are pencils used in polling stations instead of pens?
This isn’t so it makes it easier to ‘rub votes out’ as some conspiracy theories would like you to believe. It’s simply because they don’t dry out or smudge when you fold a ballot paper over. Smudges can mean it isn’t clear to see who an elector has voted for when ballot papers are being counted. So, if you’re using a pen to vote – which you’re more than welcome to do – it’s a good idea to make sure it’s a non-smudging one.
If I don’t vote, does my vote go to the government?
No. Unused votes remain unused and don’t go to anyone. They are not allocated to any candidate, political party or government. Local elections typically only have a 30 to 40 percent turnout, general elections are higher at 60 to 70 percent, and candidates are elected purely on the number of votes which are cast.