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You Can’t Count on Me

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"This is an immensely Victorian system that's way past its sell-by date, and here we are flogging it in the 21st century. It's a system that's not suitable for our lifestyle in the 21st century. We need to look afresh at this and start a new system.”

In the week that Britain went to the polls to elect a new government, this was the damning verdict on our antiquated methods of recording votes. It was delivered by David Monks, from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, a man clearly well versed in mixing his metaphors. His organization rejoices in the acronym Solace, but I doubt his words will bring much comfort to those who were prevented from voting in the UK General Election on May 6th. Yes, it turns out that administering ballots has joined the very long list of things that our once-great nation no longer does well.

Remember the controversy over the “hanging chads”? Back in November 2000, the British media had a field day gloating over the disputed Bush/Gore election and the subsequent disclosures about electoral fraud and faulty hole-punching machines in Florida.

I thought about those chads this week, when I went to cast my vote in the most eagerly anticipated General Election in years. As I grasped the pencil stub and contemplated the list of boxes into which I could place my “X", all the talk about a hi-tech election seemed as distant as, well, Miami-Dade. We may be getting our sound bites via Twitter these days, but when it comes to conducting a ballot, we Brits still prefer the trusty equipment that has served generations of schoolchildren.

I was lucky enough to cast my vote in a virtually empty school hall at 10.30 in the morning. But as the polls closed at 10pm and pundits geared up for an all-night “talkathon,” it soon became clear that there was one issue on which everyone could agree. The deadline had passed leaving hundreds of voters out in the cold and unable to exercise their democratic rights. What a farce.

Indignation mounted as reports emerged about polling stations running out of ballot papers and disenfranchised voters trying to stage sit-in protests. From Manchester and Leeds in the North, to Hackney and Ealing in London, the British public’s appetite for queuing patiently – and to no avail – was being severely tested.

Our system is seriously flawed because it requires citizens to vote near their place of residence not their place of work. When polling falls on a week day, as it always does, it means that many will go to the polls in the evening, causing a bottleneck at polling stations. But in all the pre-election talk about floating (undecided) voters, no-one expected Britons to cast aside their usual apathy. So, with no provision made for a higher voter turnout (it rose from 61% in 2005 to 65% this time), the stage was set for disruption and disappointment.

Just getting through the doors wasn’t the only issue on Thursday night. There’s the antediluvian practice of poring over the electoral register to check off the voter’s name before handing over the ballot papers. It might be acceptable for a bingo game in a village hall, but this is democracy in the 21st century!

Last week, many students – first-time voters – complained about being shunted into separate (slower) lines than other residents, because they hadn’t brought their polling cards with them.

One student from South Yorkshire  emailed The Guardian website to say: "I was one of the around 100 or so denied the right to vote last night in [Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg's [Sheffield Hallam] constituency. I was appalled by the archaic set up, for a 24/7 society and an, allegedly, leading world power we run our democracy like a parish fete."

All of this might seem rather trivial compared with the carnage that marred Iraq’s parliamentary elections earlier this year. Despite the discovery of a car bomb in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Britain's General Election was not an occasion marred by armed conflict and mass intimidation of voters.

But watching amateur footage of "Voter fury in Hackney, east London" I’m struck by how restrained it all is. It's a bit reminiscent of the satirical films made by brothers John and Roy Boulting in the 1950s and 60s. In I’m All Right Jack the peerless Peter Sellers plays a militant trade unionist who leads a strike at a munitions factory. He went on to star as a well-meaning vicar who falls foul of his wealthy parishioners in Heaven’s Above.

Satire, now that's something Britain still excels at. Farces, like last week's ballot-box shambles, are something we could definitely improve upon.

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About Susannah Straughan

  • the fact that their names have to be crossed off the register in such a laborious fashion

    Which was the main reason, I think, why there ended up being bottlenecks at some polling stations and a few people didn’t get to vote at all.

    I never had a problem. At the various addresses where I lived, my polling station was never more than 5 or 10 minutes’ walk away. They open at six, so I always went first thing, on my way to work. There were only ever a couple of people in there, and it took the clerks a matter of seconds to find my name on the list and cross it off.

    It does help if you bring your polling card, even though they tell you it’s not necessary.

    Most Brits don’t start work until 9 or 9.30, so even with a commute there’s plenty of time to get to the polls and avoid the evening rush.

    My Dad used to go after work – but before he came home. Never had a problem either, and that was in the 1970s and 80s when turnout was much higher.

    I have limited sympathy for the people who went late and missed out. If you’re going to leave things till the last moment, you should be prepared for the consequences – and I speak as someone who procrastinates quite a bit!

    As of this hour, it looks as if Cameron is indeed going to be the next PM, with Clegg as his deputy in a Tory/Lib Dem coalition. (It just remains for Clegg to convince 75% of his party.) I think it’s the best outcome for the country under the circumstances: there’s no way the so-called ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of Labour, the Lib Dems and the nationalists would have held together more than a few months.

    I think, though, that before signing anything Clegg might want to get an assurance from Cameron that he won’t call another snap election later in the year to try to get an overall majority. If he succeeds, there go all the promises that the Tories are making to the Lib Dems right now.

  • Susannah Straughan

    Dr Dreadful – commiserations on your failure to obtain a postal vote this time.

    My issue isn’t so much with voters being forced to use a pencil on a string but with the fact that their names have to be crossed off the register in such a laborious fashion. It is like being back at school in the 70s.

    And the waiting goes on for those wondering who the next PM might be . . .

  • STM

    I agree with doc about the pencil and paer, BTW. If that aspect of it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s only down to incomeptence that some people weren’t able to vote. 21st century voting machines and the like have their own downsides. Potentially, they can also be fiddle-arsed with.

  • STM

    Susannah: “Perhaps we could also learn a thing or two from the Aussies about how to run the economy. Theirs doesn’t seem to be in its death throes at the moment.”

    Prudential regulation to stop cowboy banking/financial market practises + lots of stuff in the ground that everyone wants to buy = no recession.

    The truth is, though, the Australian economy is regarded by many economists as the canary in the coal mine, largely because it is propped up by the mining and resources sector and the developed wwestern economy tied closest to China. If the big Dragon to our north gets the flu, the kangaroo canary lurches over clutching its throat and goes “Aaaaaa-argh”.

    If it hasn’t fallen over no one’s will, if it’s the first to go, everyone else needs to look out.

    On that basis, things are OK for now. I predict within 12-18 months everyone slowly coming out of the woods, even with Greece, Portgual, Spain and to a lesser extent, Italy, struggling at the moment.

    The real hope is: the US and Britain particularly regulating through legislation some means to stop the cowboy banking practises of Wall Street and The City that got us all there in the first place.

    Real wealth isn’t gained by shuffling money around. It’s fleeting – and carries considerable risk, as we’ve all seen.

  • Some good points, although I must confess to being a bit of a traditionalist in that nothing says electoral integrity to me more than the pencil on a string and the good old curtained cubicle.

    It always feels to me a bit like going to the doctor. Uncomfortable, but it does bring home the gravity of what you’re doing.

    A lot of the media mirth Susannah refers to in reference to the 2000 US presidential election arose from the fact that all that money had been spent on elaborate machines and computers to ensure a fair, efficient election and everything had still all gone down the crapper.

    Meanwhile, Britain’s own old-fashioned pencil-and-paper election went off a few months later without a hitch.

    Typical sledgehammer-vs.-nut Americans, was the judgement, I think. It seemed rather like the (actually apocryphal) story about NASA spending millions developing a pen that would work in space, while the Russians just used pencils.

    I still think the actual mechanisms used for elections in Britain work well. There are always going to be a few problems – like the 14-year-old kid who got sent a polling card by mistake and actually managed to vote by disguising himself to look a bit older. He’d have got away with it, too, if he hadn’t told his teacher why he was late for school.

    I think most of the chaos this time was down to a failure of planning. Electoral officers were probably expecting more of the voter apathy which has plagued the last couple of go-rounds, and got caught on the hop.

    From my own experience, though, Susannah does have a point in regard to how difficult it can be to vote. I’m an expat and wasn’t able to vote this time because I couldn’t find another British citizen to co-sign my register application where I live in what is known in America as “BFE”, in Australia as “way out in woop-woop” and in Britain as “the back of beyond”.

    Even if I had located a willing compatriot, a postal vote would have done me no good because ballots can only be mailed out a few days before the election, and mine wouldn’t have reached me in time for me to be able to send it back.

    My other option would have been a proxy vote: my brother. And he, in turn, would have had to apply for a postal vote because he doesn’t live near the constituency where I was last registered to vote before I emigrated.


  • Don’t feel too bad, Susannah. My son works for what is called sherút l’umít (National Service) and is supposed to get a 650 shekel stipend – about 115 quid – monthly. It isn’t much, but we count on the money. We found out that he has not been paid in three months. This is the Ministry of Defence that does not give a damn about paying those who work for it. If he is not paid soon (he is supposed to get paid tomorrow for all three months), I’m pulling him out of the whole shebang.

    Ask anyone here. They’ll tell you I’m not polite.

    Just a few hundred people couldn’t cast a vote? It could have been far worse. You could have had an Iranian style “free” election.

  • Susannah Straughan

    Perhaps we could also learn a thing or two from the Aussies about how to run the economy. Theirs doesn’t seem to be in its death throes at the moment.

  • STM

    Yeah, that’d make it a bitter pill. I love one thing about the voting process in Oz … everyone becomes engaged.

    And politicians can’t fluff it or make up issues hoping to polarise and ignite those on the extremes while leaving fringe participants out in the cold.

    In other words, ff the whole country has to vote, you can’t make sh.t up or you get found out.

    Preferential voting works nicely too; the run-off almost means you vote for the candidates you least dislike, going down the order, say one to five, to those you most dislike.

    Which means even if you’re voting for an independent or a third party, if they don’t get up, someone with comparable political beliefs at least has a chance of getting your vote.

    Your vote never goes completely to waste if there’s a battle in the two-party preferred stakes.

    We’ve did well here to take the Westminster system in function, combine it with the US system in form, and create the brand-new “Wahsminster system”.

    Jokes aside, though, I do find it difficult to watch what the Old Dart and its grand old institution of democracy are going through right now.

    But Britain is a democracy in the truest sense in that it learns from its own mistakes and does its best to put them to rights, even if it might take longer than everyone would like.

    In that sense, perhaps this is the much-need wake-up call that will make everyone in the UK think about how to improve an outdated electoral system.

  • Susannah Straughan

    Victor, I think we can all agree that it’s time to retire the booths to a museum and find a system that reflects the needs and lifestyles of 21st-century voters.

    STM, I’m with you on the compulsory attendance on polling day. You can’t complain about your government if you’re not even prepared to vote once every 5 years. Unfortunately, one of Thursday night’s unlucky voters had actually flown back that night from a holiday in Cyprus because she didn’t want to miss out!

  • STM

    And Aussie-style Saturday polling … zip on down to the school hall, cast your vote, and bugger off to the beach, the pub or a barbecue for the rest of the day.

  • STM

    Susannah, hopefully the Tories will get the nod. I don’t say that because I agree with their policies – although it seems to me both parties have accepted that in the 21st century they need to move closer to the centre and away from their traditional voter bases or remain unelectable – but because the conservatives out of the three parties got the most votes and I believe in the democratic process even if I don’t necessarily agree with the outcome.

    I agree with the foolishness of the first-past-the past system, though. It’s more than had its day.

    The UK needs to introduce preferential voting and proportional representation in a revamped, democratically elected upper house that can keep its traitions and its name but which needs to end once and for all its reputation as unrepresentative swill so that that institution can be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.

    Aussie-style compulsory voting wouldn’t go astray either – or at least compulsory attendance at a polling place to have your name ticked off the electoral roll.

    At least that way, you will have an electoral bureucracy that knows exactly how many voting forms it needs to have at every polling place, plus a few more beside for good measure.

    And I don’t see voting simply as a democratic right; rather, a democratic responsibility based on a right.

  • Susannah, it always amazes me that the right to vote does not always equate with the ability to vote. We sometimes have those problems here too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anyone is in a rush to do anything to change the system.

    Here in New York, I still vote in the same antiquated booths that my grandfather used to vote in. I wonder when we will bring voting into the 21st century along with everything else.