Wednesday, May 17, 2023

GUEST POST Will compulsory ID at polling stations break our model of canvassing and knocking up?

Will requiring voters to produce photographic ID at the polling station spell the end for political parties' current polling-day methods? Augustus Carp reports on his experience of telling in this month's local elections.

We all know the game, and a lot of us rather enjoy it. We spend hours canvassing the electorate, and make detailed notes on the register, some of which are accurate. Then, on polling day, we sit outside the polling station and collect the voters’ numbers, send them back to the Committee Room, where someone crosses them off the marked register. Anyone whose name is not crossed off gets a friendly reminder through the process known as 'knocking up'.

As a technique for winning closely-fought elections it’s tried and tested. The Labour Party believe that Ian Mikardo MP first used the 'Reading System' in the 1945 General Election, and no Liberal Party Committee Room would have been complete without a badly written set of Shuttleworth pads. 

These were strangely coloured sets of no-carbon-required paper, on to which the marked ledger had been (badly) transcribed, which enabled activists to cross off names as the numbers came back from the polling station, with the agents able to send out knockers-up three or four times, depending on how brutal they chose to be.

Some of these quaint old traditions have been modernised. The numbers are still written on to slips of paper with 44 boxes, but are now photographed and transmitted by WhatsApp. (Why 44 boxes per sheet? No one knows. It’s tradition.) Some people even enter their numbers electronically from their devices. Knocking up is done from lists sent to mobile phones, so there’s no longer a chance for the knockers up to pop back to the Committee Room for a rest and a cup of tea.

But is it all becoming pointless? I ask because of my experience earlier this month collecting numbers outside a polling station in a neighbouring borough.

The first thing I noted was that everyone (bar two voters) turned up proudly waving their photo ID but without their polling cards. In the past, most people carried these - admittedly rather pointless - talismans with them on their way to vote, which made collecting the numbers very easy. 

No card means no number, but photo ID seems to have replaced the polling card in the popular imagination as the thing to be seen with on polling day.

The second thing I noticed was rather more worrying - the outright hostility from some voters to the tellers. There were three of us, working in tolerable unity and harmony as tradition requires, and we all faced abuse and contempt from the voters. 

Two complaints were made to the Polling Officials about us being 'aggressive' in our number-collecting endeavours. I cannot speak for myself, but I can assure you that my two colleagues were the epitome of good manners throughout. Any aggression was coming from the voters: it was 'a plague on both your houses' made manifest through acts of spite.

On one of my telling pad sheets I recorded only 16 out of a possible 44 numbers. The rest either didn’t have numbers or refused to disclose them. The advice from the committee room was, of course, 'Just ask them for their name and address' or 'Just ask them to get the clerk to give them the number and tell you on the way out.' Believe me, in the circumstances, that was not good advice.

Add in the increasing number of postal votes, and I wonder if there’s any point in a polling day operation any more. Certainly, for local elections, the combination of postal votes, numberless hordes, refuseniks and the low turnout make the exercise seem futile. 

In this case I was told we were testing systems prior to the general election, so perhaps some good came of it, but I wonder if I would have done as good a job by just sitting outside the polling station, wearing a rosette and smiling a lot.

Augustus Carp is the pen name of someone who has been a member of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats since 1976. He claims to have worked on more than 50 polling day operations in that time, "some of which were successful".


Anonymous said...

Sitting outside the polling station, smiling a lot while wearing a rosette has been the entire election day activity of the very successful Residents Association round our way for years

Anonymous said...

Telling and polling day organisation has been a thing since the 1850s - I doubt it will disappear in close contests. However, postal voting and extensive eve of poll leafleting probably make it less important than before.

Round our way the posher Tories just stand outside the polling station and smile at people, not even bothering to take numbers. And they invariably lose - the more people see them, the less they like them!

Anonymous said...

"The more people see them, the less they like them!"
I think that's my main concern about me trying to adopt that style. Many years ago I sat outside a polling station with a Labour County Council candidate who had a quite mesmeric personality - I am sure he converted voters as they went in, merely by asking them for their numbers.
It is, of course, axiomatic that in very close contests the candidate (sometimes referred to as "the legal necessity") should be kept as far away from the electorate as possible.