What it’s like to vote in the UK

18.51, Tuesday 3 Nov 2020

I’ve voted in seven general elections. The first was 1997, when Labour won and Blair got in. Also various local elections, mayoral elections, and European elections, plus two referendums.

The electoral register is kept up to date continuously. I can register to vote online. Periodically a letter is sent to our house with a list of all registered voters at the address. I can confirm it or update it, and send the letter back in the post or do it online.

Before an election, a polling card is sent out.

I’ve always lived within walking distance of a polling station.

There’s a short line, if any (I tend to vote before or after work).

The setup is always the same:

Two clerks sit at a desk. One clerk - just a regular person, they look like one of my neighbours - takes my name and address. I don’t need my polling card. All the registered votes are printed out for the clerk on big sheets of paper. They confirm my name, and cross me off the list with a ruler and a biro. Their colleague hands me a voting slip.

I go to a booth and fill in the voting slip. There are always these fat, stubby pencils, tied to the inside of the booth.

The booths are flimsy and made of wood. They’re tall and open on the back.

It turns out that the main supplier of all this kit is Shaw’s Election Supplies and they’ve been trading continuously since 1750. They sell everything from ballot boxes to signage to vote counting trays. Here are the stubby pencils I’m talking about. 19 quid for a 100 pack.

Here’s the sign that’s always outside polling stations. It says POLLING STATION in black type.

Then I fold my slip and put it in a metal box at the front. It looks like a battered black cube maybe 50cm on the side, with a letterbox slot in the top. There’s someone standing near the box.

As I leave, there’s usually somebody outside to ask who I am and sometimes how I voted. I assume some of this is political (so parties can get out their supporters) and some is to do with exit polls. I’ve never given it much thought.

The Electoral Commission publishes the polling station handbook (pdf) which covers all of this.

At the end of the day, the boxes are taken to the count. Teams of people tally the votes. The count may be disputed; the votes are re-counted. When all the votes are counted, a winner is declared. There’s a set formula for the words.

I don’t remember voting ever being any different.


What I love imagining in the whole process is the role of witnessing.

The polling station staff see me stand at the booth; they can see there’s no-one else there, and they can see I haven’t got my phone out. I see my pencil mark made on the voting slip, and I put the slip into the locked ballot box myself. Another staff member watches me. The staff are at the polling station from open to close.

The box follows a chain of custody. At the end of the day, it is sealed, and any candidate or official can also add their seal. During transport, the ballot box is never unattended.

People witness the boxes being unsealed. People witness the slips coming out. People count the slips and people witness the slips being counted. The counting centres have public observation areas; they’re often on TV.

The process is one of having as many different eyes on the system as possible, at every step. Opportunities for sleight of hand are minimised.

For me, at least, it creates trust. The single moment of anonymity is the slip I get handed, but absolutely everything else is open to inspection.

When I’m voting, I feel part of something very big and very inclusive. It’s a collective choreography that involves the whole country. Unlike the sprawling systems that I spend most of my time with, like the internet, or roads, or this end of the grocery supply chain, there’s no part of voting that ever feels unobvious. I don’t have to squint and guess at how part of it might work, or trust that someone cleverer than me could explain it if I asked. It’s just… there. Making my X with that stubby pencil, I get to engage with all of this directly, and it is thrilling.

So I love voting. Even though I’m batting 2 for 7 on general elections, and 0 for 2 on referendums. Oh well, that’s democracy. I’m better at gambling: I made enough for a couple of boxes of doughnuts betting on Trump on 2016, and nobody would eat them when I took them into the office.

Other countries

I don’t have any experience of how voting works in other countries. I know the process varies pretty widely.

I’m not saying that the UK is any better or any worse.

I’m not say that the way the votes are put to use is fair or unfair – first past the post, constituencies, etc.

No comment, on any of that.

But I would love to hear stories of how voting works in countries other than my country, the UK. The actual material act of voting in a national election. Any country, not just the US which is voting today. If you post anything on Twitter or your blog, do let me know.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.