After a month in which it took not only a volcanic eruption, but the closure of all the airports in the country to get anything other than the election onto the news, today all the BBC news will tell you is that “people are going to the polls”. It’s not the done thing here to report on the election while the polls are open, even though the whole country is in the same time zone (which amazed me when I moved here) and so the UK can’t ever get into the kind of situations that might arise in the United States where, on the basis of votes counted from East Coast states, candidates could concede before the polls even close in California, much less in Hawai’i. BBC election coverage begins five minutes before the polls close this evening and is scheduled to go on all night. Much was made yesterday of candidates who said they’d be up all night to use every last second for campaigning, though what voters they could influence at four in the morning I don’t know.
So the only election news I have to report is my own: I voted! And it’s a very different process here. In Kentucky, we had voting machines; in California, we used the punch-card-and-chad-system. How do you vote here? You take a pencil and mark an X on a piece of paper–except that here they call it “a cross”, not “an X”.
Polling stations look pretty much like they do in the US, set up in schools, village halls, and any number of buildings whose normal use is for Scouts, Sea Cadets, cricket clubs, or the WI (Women’s Institute, a very traditional kind of women’s clubs). In locations lacking such amenities things can get a bit more exotic. I’ve heard tell of polling stations set up in anything from caravans (US: campers) to castles. I’ve googled-up two castles, one dating from the14th-century and one from the 17th, used as polling stations and there are probably more—sure beats the neighbor’s garage where I used to vote in California. Some polling stations set up in pubs have been known to get 100% turnout.
Here in our village, the church hall (a social hall built next door to the church) hosts the polling station. Inside, you confirm your name and address with a polling station worker who tells you your voter number, and then another worker gives you a ballot paper—a printed sheet about half the size of an A4 page (the standard size paper here for computer printers or typewriters, if anyone still uses typewriters) showing a numbered list of candidates, including each one’s name, party, and party logo. You take this to one of two tiny little tables with partitions set up across them in the shape of an X—subtle metaphor?—so that eight voters at a time (four per table) can have the privacy of a teensy triangular space about 20 inches on its longest side. There you’ll find a little pencil on the end of a string. You make your X, fold the paper in half, put it through the slot in the ballot box, and you’re done. Very simple. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
On your way out you pass the tellers: volunteers from the parties who ask you for your voter number. It’s voluntary, but the parties like to know whether their members have voted. If you belong to a party—and most people don’t—then you might find, if the tellers haven’t taken your number, that a nice volunteer from your party will knock on your door about 30 minutes before closing time, reminding you to vote or even offering you a ride to the polling station. The Conservative (blue rosette) and Liberal Democrat (yellow rosette) tellers were happy for me to take a photo; there was no Labour party teller. In our neighborhood, the number of votes cast for the Labour candidate is expected to be down in the noise compared to the number of votes for the Tories and LibDems.
I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside the polling station. A BBC item on-line today lists some of the other do’s and don’t’s of polling stations. You can bring your dogs, but ponies must be tethered outside. You can’t discuss the election with anyone. You can be tipsy, but not falling-down drunk. As to wardrobe, burqas are fine; you can answer questions from inside it to confirm your identity so they don’t need to see your face. Provocative clothing is out, as indecent nightwear or women going topless might be distracting, although topless men—they mentioned construction workers coming in from building sites—would be no problem. Overtly political clothing advertising a party or candidate standing in this election will not be permitted generally, although an exception will be made, according to one interviewee, for a candidate from the Pirate party who is expected to come to vote wearing a pirate costume.
The ballots are counted by hand. In some elections, some districts use computers to help with the count, but a general election is always tallied by real human beings. A friend who’s lived in Guildford most of her life said that they used to hire off-duty bank tellers to count the ballot papers; counting stacks of paper quickly was their bread and butter anyway. And back then, she says, there was a requirement that the counting take place in public, so the bank tellers counted the ballot papers (they never just say “ballots” here, for some reason) in a civic building called the Guildhall, which has a large area suitable for setting up counting tables, and a gallery or mezzanine, handy for letting the public watch.
Finally, an official known as the Returning Officer (as in election returns) publicly announces the results. This seems usually to be a man wearing a ruffled shirt and knee breeches, who stands before the press, with all of the candidates standing behind him, and announces how many votes each received.
Counting can go on all night; the BBC coverage is expected to last until 10 tomorrow morning. If you’re planning an election party, you can download party games and masks from the BBC website. My favorite is a bingo game in which, instead of numbers, the cards are marked with phrases you’re more or less likely to hear from the TV commentators: exit poll, returning officer, sorry to interrupt you, keys to number ten, not since 1974, technical difficulties, over to Jeremy, kingmaker, Twitter.
The masks (which you print and cut out) show the faces of the party leaders from the Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru. Since politicians—at least in the US—are known for kissing babies, I asked my neighbor and Charlotte, her 2-year-old, to model for me. Surprisingly, neither of them seemed to find this odd.
And obviously the big news tomorrow is going to be who won. You can count on that, no matter how many volcanos erupt.