Sunday, June 26, 2016

Trouble at the business end of democracy: the #Usepens Affair

In the last 24 hours before the referendum, the #usepens hashtag was mainly regarded as light relief at the end of what had been by any objective standard an unusually tough and polarising campaign. Yet its starting point was genuine concern from some Leave campaigners that votes would be tampered with if ballots were marked in the traditional pencil. 

And that's scary - although my reasons for worrying about this are probably different to the original users of the hashtag.

Full disclosure: several careers ago I worked as a policy wonk for the Electoral Commission, the body that advises on how UK elections are run. So while I'm not an expert - I'm way too rusty for that - I do have a reasonable understanding of these things work.

So if any real election gurus read this, feel free to shake your head at my oversimplifications. :)

And the obligatory caveat: this is not a post about the referendum result as such. My hope is that you can read this whether you voted Leave or Remain and understand that what I'm concerned about is actually something more fundamental: confidence in the democratic process itself.

You can bring your pen to vote if you want to (but you really don't need to) 

While there are inevitably points of theoretical vulnerability in the British electoral system - if you really want something to be concerned about, I recommend postal voting or voter registration - the fact that polling stations provide pencils not pens for you to mark your ballot paper is not one which springs to mind.

Think of it this way: you place your vote in a sealed ballot box, which then goes to the count, where it's opened and counted in the presence of politicians and their agents. There is neither time nor opportunity for an intermediate stage where vote-tampering or vote-erasing could take place. 

If you feel you must, you can bring your own pen, as the Electoral Commission pointed out.  But you really don't have to. We've been running universal suffrage elections in this country for nearly a century now and actually we're pretty darn good at it.

And I do appreciate that most people have no idea what happens to their votes once they've cast them - why would they? But why not ask, instead of assuming the worst on social media? 

The unsung heroes of every election

Such theories also do a disservice to the people around the country who make elections happen, from Poll Clerks and Presiding Officers in polling stations all the way up to Electoral Services Managers and Returning Officers. 

These are everyday people like you and me who do this remarkable thing for our democracy: hard-working, dedicated and traditionally of great probity. It's notable that in (thankfully very rare) cases of electoral fraud in recent years, it's been politicians who have been at fault, not the administrators. 

The idea, then, that shadowy forces could somehow suborn election staff in sufficient numbers or do enough of an end-run around them (not to mention a small army of politicians and party officials) to affect the result is more than a little unlikely in the cold light of day.

Democracy: built on trust

Yet when an opinion poll suggests a third of voters (and nearly half of Leave voters) thought the referendum result would probably be rigged, it sounds like there are bigger problems of trust than can be solved through the discrete application of logic in this case

Sure, we could swap pencils for pens in the polling station in the hope it would make people happy, but I suspect that their fears and anxieties would simply latch onto another detail.

This is what really troubles me about the #usepens affair. A well-designed, tried and tested voting system, run by professionals, overseen by politicians with a vested interest in keeping it honest, is colliding with an apparent lack of faith not just in democratic institutions, but now in the electoral process itself.

The reasons for this lack of faith are outside the remit of this article but, as one of my favourite bands once pointed out, society is built on trust.* And without a certain amount of collective trust in the honesty of the electoral process and its results, we can't guarantee legitimacy for the Government of the day and ultimately for democracy itself.  

Take a moment to step back and think about it. That's a potentially huge issue.

A canary in the coalmine 

The legacy of #usepens should be be a canary in the coalmine for politicians and concerned people of all parties and none. This is a collective problem for civil society, not just those paid to worry about such things.

And the starting point is to really understand why so many are so disillusioned that now even the business end of democracy - the ballot paper, the polling station - is regarded with suspicion and distrust.   

* Technically, built on bluff too. But that's another article entirely.

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