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The ritual of the polling booth is vital to healthy democracy


ON MY kitchen table in Derbyshire is a voting form for the European elections. On the radio a pundit is saying that local and European elections are to be held on Thursday June 10.

Not here they aren’t. Not in the East Midlands. There is no election on Thursday June 10 or on any other Thursday. There’s a sort of deadline (June 8) for posting back our ballot papers; and counting (we suppose) will begin on June 10; but the tellers may as well start counting our postal votes as soon as they receive them, for once we have dropped them in the mailbox there can be no changing our minds and getting them back. We will have voted. I think I’ll vote next week — but then again maybe I will vote today. I have no idea when my friends and neighbours will be voting. It doesn’t matter. We no longer have an election day.

It strikes me that if the Spanish electorate had had an all-postal voting system like ours in their recent general election then it is possible that a different party — the right-wing Popular Party — would have won. Most people think that the Madrid bombing and the Popular Party’s ill-judged response robbed them of their winning margin, and it happened in the last few days.

All kinds of misgivings are aroused by the experiment with all-postal voting, almost casually undertaken, and now under way in Britain. This particular pilot looks like a complete shambles. The immediate worries, and the easiest to express with any focus, are the most tangible. They surround the practicalities. Can the papers be got out and got back in time? Will they go to the right people? How much scope is there for fraud?

Such questions will be thoroughly discussed in the weeks ahead but they are not my concern here. New systems always bring teething problems but in principle, and with time, they must be soluble. We have had a certain amount of postal voting for decades. There will be new opportunities for fraud; fraud is possible under any system; it can never be eliminated but with vigilance it can be contained.

Harder to express, harder to pin down, harder to weigh, is a worry of a more abstract kind: a worry almost of the heart. As we move away from the primitive simplicity of walking to a polling station on a set day and casting our vote in person, are we in danger of losing not just a straightforwardness of procedure, but a straighforwardness of concept too? We used to know what an election was, not least because a kind of ceremony lay at its heart. Something is drifting away. An election, as we British have always understood it, is an event. It may be all kinds of other things, too — a choice between rival manifestos, a key stage in the construction of a legislature or council, a guide to popular opinion — but it is first, and always, an event. It happens. It happens at a time and in a place. It happens as a football match, a solar eclipse or a performance of La Bohème happens. You can place bets on it, go abroad to avoid it, or stay up all night to watch it unfold. You can remember (or forget) what you were doing when it took place. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a fixture.

This matters. It matters because people need frames. We know of course that politics, like life, is continuous, that reality is not a story with a clear plot or denouement, and that little is ever finally resolved; but to make sense of our world we have a psychological need to give shape to all this fluidity: we hanker for mileposts, landmarks, finishing lines. That is why we have weddings, funerals, graduations, changings of the guard; and that is why in politics we give governments terms, punctuating them clearly at the end with an election. It’s the political equivalent of the Big Match.

We do not have to do things this way: we could renew administrations incrementally, poll public opinion continuously, trim our government’s course daily; but we prefer to put our political landscapes into frames, and to do it with a bit of a flourish.

So though an election has many administrative functions it is also both a performance and a kind of ceremony. Like an Ancient Greek drama, it observes the unities: of time, place and action. The time is the appointed Thursday. The place is your local polling station, from where you may follow the ballot boxes to the count later that night. The action is the placing of a multitude of real pencilled crosses on a multitude of real ballot papers by a multitude of citizens who have made their way to the appointed place to do this; the counting of them, by real tellers, later; and finally the announcement, by a real returning officer, of the result.

And what this all adds up to is the closest approach which a modern society of 60 million people can make to a big pow-wow in which the whole nation gathers and takes a decision. All minds come together on the same day; and on that day we choose our representatives.

Even for those who take no close interest in politics there is something special about that Thursday. Temporary signs outside schools and village halls declare them to be polling stations. Small knots of excited party workers stand around. People come filing in off the streets in ones and twos — sometimes just a trickle, sometimes a queue — and, however many times you have done it before, you feel very slightly tense as a serious looking official checks your name, gives you the ballot paper, and directs you to a little private confessional where, pencil in hand, you do your homage to democracy.

As you vote on that day you know that millions of your compatriots are doing the same, all over Britain, in the same way and in similar places. There is something undeniably solemn about it. You are part of it, and it makes you think. It invests the result, which you hear about later that night or on the news the next morning, with a personal significance for you because you know you broke with your daily routine, walked to a place you do not normally go to, and played your part.

Ceremony counts. Physical symbols, real actions, visible signs, count. I hate to use a modish word such as “narrative”, but here it is the right word. Like theatre, democratic politics needs a narrative. An election is a final act and a climax in this narrative. We will be wrong to let it fall away, diminished among all the other bumf that comes with the post and ends up unopened in the bin; or fractured into millions of lonely perusals of a form and postings of an envelope: solitary acts which, done separately, will never quite add up to what it meant to be summoned — all of us, on the same day — to a slightly inconvenient but strangely moving civic duty.

I do think we are making too much of this business of convenience. It isn’t a great deal to walk to a polling station, but it is something. Now we seek an arrangement which asks of voters nothing — hardly the lifting of a finger. What does that seem to say about the importance of what we are asking them to do? What is the underlying message? Over time you can depress customer demand by making something too cheap.

Our present undignified scramble to take all the effort out of voting reminds me of those Church of England vicars who, when a big sporting fixture threatens to clash with one of their church services, move the time of Holy Communion. Maybe this does bolster attendances for that day, but a priest embarrassed to relay his God’s demands diminishes his faith; and this must in the end diminish congregations. You may move some unsold stock, but what are you doing to the brand?

If the “experiment” being piloted here in the East Midlands works, it will bring an increased turnout this time, but until politics itself feels more important to people, then the next all-postal election will see a gentle resumption in the decline, albeit from a slightly higher base.

And we may guess how the eternal fidgeters among our governors will react. They will point out that opening an envelope and looking for a mailbox inconveniences people. Maybe (they will speculate) we could all vote with our interactive television monitors, without even getting up off the sofa? Or how about offering Air Miles with every ballot paper

Here’s what I think we should do about declining voter turnouts. Nothing.

We have a system, a kind of ritual, for electing our representatives in Britain; we have done it this way for a long time; it contains an element of theatre — curtain up, roll of the kettledrums, cast vote, count votes, cue returning officer, cheer, boo, curtain down. It is straightforward; people understand it; and millions do take part. Let those who opt out enjoy that luxury: they will opt back in soon enough when it matters. In our anxiety to pursue the truants, we are in danger of losing the stage, losing the curtain and losing the plot.