Recently I made a discovery that surprised me.
I had always believed that if you wrote anything on a ballot paper other than an X in the box, then this would mean that the ballot would be rejected (or spoiled) and your vote would not be counted. I get the impression that this is what most people think.
However, after consulting the Representation of the People Act 1983 (which is the principal piece of legislation governing UK elections – although it took a surprising amount of effort to establish that) I discovered that this was not the case:
In fact, this is what Schedule 1 of the Act says:
(1)Any ballot paper—
(a) which does not bear the official mark, or
(b) on which votes are given for more than one candidate, or
(c) on which anything is written or marked by which the voter can be identified except the printed number and other unique identifying mark on the back, or
(d) which is unmarked or void for uncertainty,
shall, subject to the provisions of the next following paragraph, be void and not counted.
(2)A ballot paper on which the vote is marked—
(a) elsewhere than in the proper place, or
(b) otherwise than by means of a cross, or
(c) by more than one mark,
shall not for such reason be deemed to be void if an intention that the vote shall be for one or other of the candidates clearly appears, and the way the paper is marked does not itself identify the voter and it is not shown that he can be identified by it.
This means that, so long as your voting intention is clear and you don’t identify yourself, you are free to write something additional on the ballot paper if you wish. I’ve since established through correspondence with those who should know (although not yet, I should stress, the Electoral Commission) that my understanding is correct.
So what, you may say? Even if it’s allowed, writing a message of defiance to the Government, is still going to be a futile gesture isn’t it? The BBC’s 2010 FAQ on What can you NOT do in a polling station?, while – interestingly – getting the law wrong, rather condescendingly gives the usual view on the futility of writing a message
These kind of deliberately spoiled ballots are part of the British political tradition, are termed “rejected votes” and are included in the overall turnout. However, those wishing to vote for one of the candidates should avoid writing comments. It may confuse the counters and lead to your vote being put in the rejected pile. And however wise or witty a comment, it’s unlikely to make much impression on staff who will be frantically trying to count ballot papers.
But what if it was not just you doing so?
What if there was an organised mass campaign to write a particular phrase as a way of highlighting a single issue?
There are limited ways for citizens to send a clear message to politicians and ‘the authorities’ and it occurs to me that – while it might not be popular with those counting the ballots – a mass exercise in writing on ballot papers might be a very powerful one. As I say I’d always assumed that the choice was between voting, and spoiling one’s ballot in protest – but it seems you can have your democratic cake and eat it.
One big stumbling block though is how would the public and the media know how many people had written the campaigning message. If a million people have written it, it’s still not worth very much if no one knows about it.
Returning Officers are obliged to report on the number of Rejected Ballots, but they do not have to report on the number of ballots with something written on them, if those ballots were nonetheless accepted. In fact, Returning Officers appear to have little discretion to report anything of this sort.
It then occurred to me that ballot papers are public records held by a Public Authority and are, presumably, subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
This then raises a number of questions:
- Would it be a legitimate FoI request to ask for the number of ballots with a particular phrase written on them?
- Would it need to be a separate request for every Parliamentary Constituency?
- Who would be the responsible Public Authority be – returning officers or the Electoral Commission?
- Would the requests be likely to be turned down on cost grounds?
- Would it be reasonable to make the requests in advance of Election Day, not least because this would probably make it cheaper to respond to them, because the information could be gleaned as part of the Count?
- Would the Information Commissioner be likely to rule in advance of the next Election as to how any such requests should be dealt with?
So many questions…
But worth addressing I think, as this might be an under-exploited means of voter protest and communication with those in power.