In the shadow of two elections

Image credit: Alex Lee

On the streets of Britain, before the alarms of commuters have come close to buzzing, an army of veterans brandishing wooden spoons come out for the early shift. Their task? To post the correct named leaflets through the correct letterboxes of voters. These 'good morning' rounds are there to wake up electors and in the process remind them that it’s a day of democracy and it’s their job to participate. The wooden spoon they each wield helps shield hands from chronic letterbox damage, more importantly they avoid any contact with malcontent dogs. No doubt everyone involved gaining newfound respect for postmen around the country.

The truth is, every election, a secret army mobilises, an army that gains few mentions during the media blitz of an election finale. But they deserve more than a mention, they are the few who lubricate the cogs of our democracy.

To counteract the human condition which allows us to excuse ourselves from taking part, the volunteers knock on doors – aptly named 'knocking up'. With only a smile on their face and a sticker (or rosette if you are lucky) on their chest, they express in the most polite way possible – “get your ass out there and cast your vote”. They do this because it works, it has been demonstrated again and again, on polling day the most effective way to use human resource is to send them knocking. It works because the people at home are reminded of how they are responsible citizens and there are people willing to take time out of their day to guilt trip you into voting, the least you can do is tick a box. A situation similar to your not-so-close friend reminding you of their birthday drinks that you had wilfully forgotten, dragged along by your own sense of duty, you turn up begrudgingly but leave satisfied.

To increase the chance of the above scenario occurring, we meet the next player – the teller. For those who have voted before, often before you enter the polling station, there is a person with a clipboard and a rosette who will ask for your polling number. Often met with a frightened turned defensive expression, tellers are quick to explain their role. They collect numbers to allow the 'knocking up' operation to be further streamlined. There is little use in knocking on doors to remind a voter to vote after they have already cast their ballot.

The day goes on, caffeine is consumed, and sorry excuses for lunch and dinner are made. The only place of respite is also the heart of the local operations, the committee room. And watching the coverage on television also allows fun to be had. Play some polling day bingo: a tick for every time a journalist talks about the general mood in a remote village hall in Britain to which they have been regrettably sent, and another tick as you watch Sunderland race to be the first to declare, employing what looks like the local running club, all decked out in jeggings and trainers running across the hall..

In the hall itself is the most tense and torturous extravaganza of polling day. Activists watch intently with a clipboard and tally sheet in hand, their job to keep a score during the first stage of the count itself – the verification. At this stage each voting slip is opened up and placed facing up on the desk and the raw number of slips counted. It gives an opportunity for the local members to get a rough tally and important localised information.

The count itself leaves little to do but an agonising wait for the returning officer to grab the microphone.

In a similar gracious tone to speeches given across the country as participants are whole-heartedly thanked for their efforts:

All of what has been described is not possible without the dedication of the vote counters who stay up as late as the activists, it’s not possible without the workers manning the polling stations for the entirety of the day. In the party political regiment, their campaigns are not possible without the volunteers, some who take the whole day off work, some who show up an hour to be a teller, some who spend the evening knocking up.

Somehow with all these individual agents and their differing goals, the whole system still runs like clockwork, maximised for efficiency, minimised for mistakes. It is something to be marvelled at. A collection of people that don’t get a mention and don’t get the publicity they deserve.

If all of this sounds as enticing to you as it does to me, there is little stopping every one of you from being involved. Near the top of your bucket list, young and old, there should be a commitment to take part in an election campaign. You may not have time now, but that’s okay – there are plenty more chances. You may not have the motivation, and that is something I cannot help with. But know this, every time you complain about something of governance whether nationally or locally, there is only one answer to be found: why don’t you do something about it?

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