Is the secret ballot really secret?

There’s a fascinating conversation going on under the Allegations of malpractice thread, in which the question is being asked, is there any possiblity that the current system might allow anyone to trace who voted for which party. This memorandum on the UK Parliament website is well worth checking out. The Guardian says it is possible. Thanks to Harboy and Occasional Commenter for the links!

This means that after the election documentary information is in existence which will disclose who voted for which particular party in the constituency. The count by the returning officer’s officials leaves all votes for each candidate in separate bundles, which are then placed in paper sacks with special labels and seals supplied by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office and forwarded to the Clerk of the Crown in London.

It is possible for the serial numbers of these ballot papers to be matched against those retained on the counterfoil stubs which disclose the electoral registration number—and therefore name and address of citizens and how they voted—which are similarly forwarded to the Clerk of the Crown in London. Copies of electoral registers are already available on computerised disk, and in the future computerised counting of ballot papers by means of electronic vote counting machines is likely to replace manual counting of votes.

If computers now in existence are able to read numbers on stacks of papers, then the technology for speedy cross-referencing and making such political inquiries is already with us. It seems that computerised matching and print-outs of entire lists of voters for each party is now perfectly possible. It may or may not be far-fetched to conjecture that at some point in the future an oppressive government or its over-zealous officials might surreptitiously wish to find out the name and address of all “dissidents” who voted against them at a general election, but if so the bundles of ballot papers and counterfoil stubs retained by the Clerk of the Crown are available for analysis to produce the necessary information. Of course the law prohibits such inquiries, but the practical reality is that compliance with and enforcement of the law ultimately depends upon the various interested agencies of government themselves.

The ostensible argument for putting the voter’s electoral registration number on the counterfoils of ballot papers is said to be that it facilitates investigations into alleged electoral offences, such as multiple voting and impersonation, so as to decide whether a fresh election needs to be ordered by the Election Court.

However, vote-tracing hardly helps in the detection and prevention of any offence in itself, for there is no way that the identity of the impersonator can be discovered from the ballot paper. Investigations of such electoral fraud, involving voters finding out when they arrive at the polling station that their name has already been ticked off the electoral register by the clerk, can rely upon the evidence of the polling clerk that a ballot paper has indeed already been handed to some impersonator—tracing the ballot paper itself is not necessary.

The case for recording voters’ registration numbers on the ballot counterfoils therefore is a weak one and cannot outweigh a growing public concern at the risk to the secrecy of the ballot. The regulations contained in the Representation of the People Act limiting the legal circumstances in which the information may be retrieved may be sufficient as rules themselves, but guaranteeing actual compliance with the rules in the real world raises more complex questions; for whilst the information to discover how individual citizens voted continues to be stored, the potential for their misuse remains. The practice of writing voters’ electoral registration numbers—or entering any other note which might disclose a voter’s personal identity—on the counterfoils of ballot papers should be expressly abolished by law.