Wednesday, July 21, 2004

democracy in action

I attended the opening of the postal votes this morning. I am obliged by the Representation of the people act to not reveal details of everything I saw, however I will explain what is reasonable to do so in the form of a process overview. (The secrecy aspects are given further down.)

I had previously been informed by letter that I was able to attend the opening of the postal votes with a colleague without notice, although I was the only candidate who bothered to do so. The checking was carried out in the Leeds Electoral office. I thought I hadn’t been to the building before but quickly realised it was familiar-it also housed the Registrar’s office and Karen and I were married there in 1994!

Gail and her team made me welcome and explained clearly what they were doing & why. There were three participants sat along a large table, with myself on the other side.

In deference to me being the only observer, the Elmfield Ballot box was dealt with first. As postal votes arrived each day, they were placed into the box which had a slit for the purpose. The seals were broken, the envelopes double-checked that they were for Elmfield, counted and the total recorded ensuring that there were not more returned than sent out.

The envelopes were then divided into three heaps and the team slitted them all open with a letter opener. Inside each envelope there should have been another envelope (Envelope A) with the ballot paper inside, along with the declaration form loose in the outer envelope (envelope B). Each declaration was checked that it was correctly filled in and that the serial number matched the number also printed on envelope A. In the event that there was no declaration to be found (or the ballot paper was outside the envelope) the other envelope was checked & the papers transposed to be correct.

Any casualties of the slitting process were repaired with sellotape and after checking any queries on declarations, they moved on to the next stage.

Now the ballot envelopes were opened, the ballot papers extracted and the serial number checked against the envelope number. If there was a mismatch it was put to one side as apparently people in the same house sometimes mix up the envelopes.

Once the ballot papers had been extracted (and any mismatched ones were reunited,) they were counted (for quantity only), the total recorded and they were sealed up again in the ballot box. They will be taken to the count tomorrow night where they will be checked for spoilt papers and sorted accordingly along with the polling station ones.

Seal is a bit of a misnomer as the process doesn’t involve the use of wax and tapers. “Cable tie” is a more accurate description of how the box gets secured shut!

The process was then repeated for the Central Ward postal votes and it was all sorted out in less than an hour.

My thanks to Gail and her team for an informative and enlightening visit. Their handling of the papers was very pragmatic and fair, they certainly made every effort to ensure that as many votes as possible were included, whereas a “jobsworth” approach would have possibly have led to some being discarded for trivial reasons.

Out of curiosity, I also asked if it was a matter of public record who had petitioned for the By-Elections (it is). If twenty electors from each ward write in requesting it then it has to be held. I was shown the file although I did not actually recognise any specific names so cannot tell which political party instigated it (although I had been informed that the Independents were not intending to, putting all of their efforts into the City Council elections in June). The by-election would normally have coincided with a City Council election but apparently this cannot be done if there is also a European election as well.

I did ask one other question. A parish Council will be created if 10% of the electorate petition for it but was there a similar procedure for dissolution? I was informed no, there is no mechanism for abolishing a parish or town council once created.
Secrecy rules for elections

These days, anyone can request a postal vote and indeed we all voted by post last month for the City Council and European elections.

The political parties like the postal vote system- their declining membership of non-activists are less and less inclined to make the effort and having the papers arrive at home rather than having to travel to a polling station increases the chance of getting a tick in the right box, particularly if the activists go round and “help” them fill in the complicated forms.

I don’t agree with giving postal votes for everybody by default. This can lead to far too much potential for abuse and whilst it is still a secret ballot via the post, people can feel under pressure to fill in the forms the way others recommend.

With polling stations, a voter knows that he or she can look at the ballot paper, decide who to vote for and put a cross in the box unobserved by others.

I can vividly recall my first vote. I was a student in Coventry in 1976/77, I was 18 and proudly took my polling card to the rather run down hall where the shabby looking wooden booths & the battered black box were. I used my pencil, showed the back of the ballot paper to the presiding officer ensuring that the election mark was clearly visible (made by some glorified stapler/punch device), dropped it in the box then immediately thought

“Is that it?”.

I was somewhat underwhelmed afterwards and certainly didn’t think I’d be standing for Public Office 28 years later as a “pillock of the community”, in the words of John Shuttleworth, the versatile singer/songwriter from Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

There is a considerable amount of election law that candidates (indeed everyone) must abide by, designed to preserve the sanctity of the British electoral system. They boil down to what are called corrupt and illegal practices.

Corrupt practices include making false declarations and attempting to influence voters by bribery, treating (providing food, drink or entertainment) and undue influence, i.e. threats, violence, duress. Corrupt practices can lead to a fine or up to 12 months imprisonment along with a five year disqualification from voting & holding public office.

Illegal practices include false statements about the personal character or conduct of other candidates, paying to display posters, omitting the “printed and published” on electoral material (oops- maybe I’d better put it at the top of the Blog to be on the safe side!), pays for taxis to transport voters, uses a school premises as a committee room and goes on TV or Radio to influence voting outside of acceptable arrangements.

Whilst candidates don’t go to prison for illegal practices, they can be fined and disqualified for voting for five years, although they can still hold public office. So it is OK for elected officials to be illegal as long as they are not corrupt...!

I have been careful to stay out of the quagmire of rubbishing my opponents during this campaign as I don’t regard it as at all constructive. I want people to vote for me on the basis of being a decent sort who is community minded & wanting to put something back into Morley and I have tried hard to convey this. I’m actually rather modest and a smidge on the shy side so trumpet blowing and public exposure via letters to the editor is the exception rather than the rule. I am human of course, I do like to be acknowledged for a job well done rather than be taken for granted but squirm when over-praised and welcome a sincere thank you over an insincere fawning any day.

I have played the Independent card strongly in my campaign, particularly when it comes to attendance. In the Morley Town Council Annual report 2003/4, for the first time, individual Councillor attendance figures are published for the Full Council and the various Committees. It isn’t a statutory requirement to do this, it was decided after the 2002/3 report came out that it would be included. I crunched the numbers and came up with stats about how well the various parties attend. However I decided that quoting specific percentages would require substantiation of the methodology so I simply distilled the message down to nine of the top ten attenders are independent. I show the actual spreadsheet here which makes the case visually (blue are Conservative, Red are Labour, independents have white background).

Morley Town Council attendance

Of course, a Councillor could have a superb attendance record then not actually participate in the meetings but the converse does not apply- if you are not there in the first place you can’t all.

Tomorrow is polling day. I’ve got the day off (apart from needing to go to a meeting at work) and ready to engage with the electorate. It will be a long day, the polls open at 8am and close at 9pm, followed by the count in the Town Hall.

Just to enliven the page slightly, here are colour versions of the leaflet photos.

Taken after a Mercia meeting in the pub, Birmingham, Doncaster  or Leicester Square (I can't remember which meeting!) Taken in a photographer in halifax for the CMA election campaign Taken by David in Morley Taken at Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the staff annual report Jubilant after having abseiled down the 190' Baitings Dam

No letters in the Morley Advertiser today, or anything heard back from the Editor. Perhaps he adopts the philosophy of the Admiral Jackie Fisher, "Never apologise, never explain". Instead, here is a scan of a letter from another independent last week also accusing labour of electioneering. (The sham letter, not the rubbish in postbox one).

Letters in Morley observer, Friday 16th July

BT update- I have had an email telling me they have passed my query onto the relevant department.

No comments: