Reverence for the vote

It’s election day, which means it’s time for a rant about voting. Today I give a point of view, a rationalisation for that point of view, then admit it’s a rationalisation and come back to the emotive reason I began with.

I love the process of voting: I believe it deserves a certain reverence. It may be my 10-second dose of democracy in 5 years (a bit more frequently, if we talk about the local council elections as well) but it is democracy, and it’s important.

Plenty of people who have the right to vote act and talk as if it’s a worthless thing to do (and I am very pleased to see that Russell Brand abandoned that position after meeting Ed Miliband) but for people who get to do it the first time, it really isn’t. I try to think what it must have been like at the end of the 19th century when working class men finally had suffrage – or for women in the 1920s when they first won the right to vote, and what it felt like to take that step – what it meant to them to have at last the ability to register their support for a candidate. I think of the significance of the secret ballot and the freedom that that must have represented to people whose lives were significantly governed by the whims of wealthy landowners and businessmen.

I also think of the value of the physical ballot paper.

I like very much that, in order to vote on legislation, an MP must physically walk through a lobby (or to make a positive abstention, both lobbies). It makes it a conscious decision, something hard to do purely on a whim or the spur of the moment. You have to know that this is what you want to do. It is also a physical representation of the support, recorded in person by the tellers.

I view the ballot paper in the same way. I value greatly the old-fashioned, low-tech, simple process we use in this country. In order to vote, I make my physical mark on a piece of physical paper, and then place that paper into a sealed and locked physical box: a tangible fact, undeniable evidence that I voted. The farther removed from that physical fact the act of voting becomes, the more susceptible I feel it must be to fraud.

In order to fix an election, under this old-school system, one must print fake ballot papers and substitute the fake ones for the real ones; to make the switch one must somehow intercept the ballot boxes as they are transported to the counting station and either open them and dump the original ballot papers, or else make a switch. However one goes about it, one must leave a trail of physical evidence behind. It can be done, but it seems eminently detectable because of the physical, tangible, actions involved. Maybe you just bribe some of the counters, but even then, there’s a trace of that money – and the counters are scrutinised, if papers go astray, there’s a physical fact to be found and recognised.

I recall reading a conspiracy theory that suggested the 1992 General Election was rigged: in certain key marginal seats, the theory claimed, there were unusually high numbers of postal votes recorded. The theory went on that, according to polling data, these seats were expected to fall to Labour but they bucked the trend and elected Conservative MPs instead. The suggestion being that those postal votes were fraudulent in some way.

Obviously, I think it’s a good thing that people can vote by post, and it’s worrying that it seems this time around some people (particularly overseas at the moment) haven’t received their ballot papers in time (according to the Guardian “polling day live” page). People should definitely not be disenfranchised if they are unable to make it to the polling station for any reason.

When we move to voting machines, and to electronic voting, that physical act and physical record is another step removed. I remember the US 2000 Presidential Election, in which there was at least a physical record of intention with the “chads” and how each paper should be counted based on how well the voter had managed to punch the card before inserting into the machine. As I understand it, that vote was a physical act that was designed to be counted by machine, rather than actually using a machine to make the vote.

The US drama series “Scandal”, however, shows electronic voting machines and a key story arc focusses on a conspiracy by the protagonist with some associates (who end up being antagonists later in the story) to rig the Presidential Election. They do this by fixing the software in a handful of voting machines in a key marginal district, to swing the state’s vote to their favoured candidate and thus tip the electoral college vote in his favour. As it turns out, they don’t wipe the rigged machines and much of Season 2 hinges on whether or not the investigator who’s hot on their trail can get to the machine and find the doctored software before they can conceal their misdeed.

I didn’t need a fictional story like Scandal to come up with that scenario for me. Electronic voting, to me, is lacking in transparency and far more dependent on “experts”. I like there being a clear, tangible, record. When I push a button or click on a screen, I don’t have that. More to the point, I don’t have any way of knowing or visualising the path that my vote takes to be counted. Suppose I get a printout from the machine (or my computer) saying “You voted Labour” – that printout has nothing to do with what actually gets recorded. Unless someone counts up the printouts and compares them to the machines’ tally, no one is any the wiser that there’s a discrepancy.

Part of this is, I am sure, just suspicion of technology in general: I imagine that there are forensic ways of determining whether software has been tampered with, just as there are ways of tracing the physical ballots if someone tries to rig the old-school system. it’s just a question of how and what the fraudster does to commit their crime.

No, the real reason I prefer the physical “X” on the ballot paper is that it is tangible, it’s a deliberate, determined, action. I go to the polling station as a definite declaration of my will; I say who I am, receive my ballot papers, go to the booth and consider my options before making a clear mark against the candidate of my choice, I check I’ve marked the right box, and I fold the paper to put it into that solid, secure-looking metal container. It is, above all, a considered act. It is not accidental, or incidental. It isn’t a throwaway act in between checking my twitter feed and reading my emails.

I suppose, ultimately, it is a ritual. It declares that it matters to vote. It’s why I like the divisions in the House of Commons. I might be equally satisfied if I had to use my biometric data in the polling booth and let the system scan my retina and thumbprint before letting me vote. Or for that matter, if I have to recite a spell or prayer and the one I recite is what registers my vote. (Which sounds like an awesome idea for a fantasy novel – I don’t recall if JK Rowling ever described how witches and wizards cast their votes? Or if they actually vote in muggle elections at all.)

Which is where I came in: voting is significant. It should be understood that way, and yes, treated with reverence, with its own rituals that mark it as something that matters in our lives.

And that’s what I thought about when I marked my X today.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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