In a matter of hours, the polling stations in tens of thousands of locations will open. Polling day used always to bring excitement. No matter that there was little or no prospect of backing a winning candidate without betraying a tradition that extended back three generations, there was something about the actual process of voting that was fascinating.
Polling stations had a church-like formality and order. There might be party tellers, asking one’s electoral number so as to check that all of their party’s vote was got out. A presiding officer sat sternly watching the proceedings, ensuring all was done properly. I once knew a school teacher who performed this task in the school in which he worked. He declared himself to be fond of polling day; he was paid for the day as a teacher and as an electoral official.
The clerks at the tables sat in pairs with their thick books of tear-off ballot papers and a ruler and pencil with which to cross off each name. A friend arrived at the table in a Northern Ireland polling station on one occasion to discover someone had taken the trouble to vote for him already. At least he was alive for someone to personate, in some places votes were cast on behalf of dead people.
Every time I have engaged in this odd ritual on which democracy rests, the same questions have arisen. Why are the polling booths made of clapboard? Why are votes cast with pencils? (There’s no rubber to erase mistakes). Why are the pencils often blue? And why are polling station signs so often printed in black upper case bold Arial font on a white background?
Once I discovered that there was even a company that produced polling station signs, and checking it, they still do. Is there a law somewhere stipulating that they must appear this way? Is there a piece of legislation dating back a century, or perhaps more, that dictates that bold black letters on a stark white background should announce the opportunity for ordinary people to exercise their franchise. Perhaps, in 1929, to be able to pass those letters and go into the building brought a sense of delight to the women under thirty who had been granted equality in 1928. The signs must date from at least that period for there was a school history book in the 1970s that talked about Manny Shinwell defeating Ramsay MacDonald in the 1935 General Election in Britain – it illustrated its point with a photograph of a polling station, the sign then as it is now.
1935 brought more years of austerity, 2019 may add to their total.