Over the last few elections, I’ve tended to rely on postal ballots to make my vote count. So I’m aware of the process of getting one - more on that later - and what feels like enormous paperwork to fill it out before stuffing it all inside the various envelopes to return.
But with my electoral observer badge on, I saw the other side of the process when I popped into the Belfast Area Electoral Office for half an hour on Tuesday morning to observe their scheduled opening of postal ballots. Hadn’t seen an actual letter opener put to such good use for a long time!
There’s a lot of checking to prevent fraud. Opening the outer envelope leaves the staff with the voter’s identity declaration and their ballot sealed in a further (smaller) envelope. The first step is to verify the voter’s identity. Compared to England where some areas have 80% of ballots cast by post, but only need to check a minimum of 20% of the postal voter declarations, every last one is scrutinised in NI.
So all the numbers have got to match up, along with dates of birth and signatures are checked against that provided on the original registration. Thorough is not a strong enough word. During the checking of the one box I stayed for, one identity declaration failed: the date of birth didn’t match.
And only then can be the ballot papers be taken out of the inner envelopes and verified , ie counted face down. At this stage there was no need for the votes to be counted, that’ll happen on Monday along with the ballots cast in the polling stations.
In the past when I’ve applied for a postal ballot, it’s always been a bit of a hassle. Identifying yourself is ok, but providing a strong enough excuse that you’ll be out of reach of your local polling station on the vital day was always tricky. In years gone by, I usually ended up working across in England two to four days a week, but with plans never finalised more than a week in advance, wandering into the area electoral office with a blank calendar was not a good way of convincing them that you’d be unavailable!
But talking to the Chief Electoral Officer, Douglas Bain, he didn’t think it should be so difficult. While the procedures for getting postal ballots continue to be significantly tighter and more rigorous than in the rest of the UK, he seemed more mellow and open to reason that I’d experienced in the past.
Getting a simple letter from your boss (or a friend/client if you’re self-employed) to attest that your pattern of work means that you tend to be away from home should be enough to convince the Electoral Office you were legit.
That would have been easy if I'd known that would have been sufficient! Anyhow, next time I apply, I’ll know a lot more about what has to happen to make my vote count in the election.