At the beginning of May, there were a number of local elections across England. Did you know that? Because, with a turn out of around a third of eligible voters of the country, it seems that many did not. I found out about the local elections somewhere in the beginning of April when I received my poll card, and decided that I would put myself forward as a poll clerk. I somewhat naively assumed that there would be hundreds of people rushing forwards to get a paid day off from work, so when I received a hefty envelope in the post a week after applying without so much as a phone call or an interview, I was quite surprised to find that it included my training manual and some employment forms to fill out! Polling stations were open from 7am to 10pm and I was required to arrive in time to set up before hand, and stayed long enough to tidy everything away at the end. The online training made it seem really complicated (despite my 100% score, hurrah!) and in all honesty, it got to the night before the election and I started to get a bit worried. What if the long day was too long for me? What if I had no idea what I was doing? What if I sleep in?!
After a night of waking up every hour and assuming I had definitely slept in, I bounded into the community centre at 6:30am with my sleeves rolled up, ready to be part of the action. There was a buzz in the air as we rushed around sticking up posters, erecting the polling booths and making sure all of our paperwork was in order for our 7am start: I suppose it was the feeling of pride that we were now active participants in local politics, as dramatic as that sounds. We were the smiling faces that greeted the voters as they came in and changed history. And so, with our pencils in our hands and our paperwork laid out in front of us in a neat and orderly fashion, we sat up straighter in our seats and prepared ourselves for the stream of voters as it crept over into 7am. And we waited. And waited some more. And after about 11 minutes, a voter came in and gave us something to do. And this was the moment that I realised there were many lessons that I was going to learn that day – and I thought I would share them with you now!
- Poll clerks can generally predict the number of voters who will arrive.
The presiding officers were old hats at every kind of election, from local to general and everything in between. They were quite confident that the day would ultimately result in between 400 and 500 votes to each polling station (there were two in our community centre) for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a local election. They shared with me that local elections typically receive the least attention from voters, possibly as a result of minimal media coverage and an overwhelming sense of disconnection from local government. Another reason we were not expecting large numbers was that it was BBQ weather: if it had just been a bit cooler, explained my colleague George, more people would have been outdoors and they wouldn’t have been rushing home to get the drumsticks on the barbie. But if it had been too cold, nobody would have wanted to go outside at all. It seems silly to me that something as arbitrary as the weather can have an effect on the politics of an area, but that it did: we rounded off our day with 425 voters.
- Being a poll clerk means pay on top of pay
If you want to be a poll clerk and you work for your local council in any capacity, you are entitled to special leave for the day, in order to fulfil your duties as a citizen. If, like me, you don’t work for the council – book a day’s holiday! Not only do you receive a day’s wages from work, but you will earn between £100 and £300 for a day as a poll clerk depending on where you are. I earned £125 for the day, as well as an extra £30 for completing the training. I will receive this as usual pay at the end of the month, along with a p60 because no, it is not tax free.
- The majority of voters are too old to see any changes take effect
That’s a really sad thing to highlight, but its true. I got excited when I saw a voter under 30 because it was such a rarity, but in actual fact the vast majority of our voters were well past retirement age. In a way, this is heart warming: it was much more difficult for them to attend the polling station, but they still made the effort. This tells me that culturally, older generations may have placed more importance on utilising your right to vote, and that is definitely a battle that we are facing with young voters today. But on the other hand, I didn’t feel that many of them had a great sense of what they were voting for. A lot of voters told me who they were voting for – and a lot of those people told me that they didn’t know who the candidates were or what they were offering, but they had just always voted one way or the other. As a poll clerk you need to remain completely impartial, so I did a lot of smiling and nodding on that day – but inside my head I was screaming ‘but it isn’t YOU who will have to deal with the the consequences of this vote’, which is maybe quite blunt of me but it is my honest opinion.
- Poll clerks are almost their own little community
There were two of us who were new poll clerks this year – one at each station. I was under a presiding officer who had been a poll clerk for the last 6 years and was about my age, and was working with a lovely older Irish man who had a lifetime of stories to tell. At the other station across the room was a presiding officer who had been presiding over elections for more years than she would care to remember (her words!) and a lady who had done a couple in the last few years. They all knew each other, and all welcomed us immediately as if we had been doing this with them for years. They remembered each others lives, asking ‘did you go on that trip to Bulgaria?’ and ‘how did it turn out with your Dad?’, yet hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since the last election. Everybody seemed to have genuine respect for each others lives, as well as the local voters who obviously came in year after year.
- People feel disconnected from local politics
Because I wasn’t going to be working as a poll clerk in my own local polling station, I applied to use a postal vote so that I could still vote on the day. When my polling card arrived and I finally found out the names of my electorates (because I had received no campaign leaflets or anything in advance), I was very disheartened to find that I actually couldn’t find anything about any of them. There was no website, or social media presence – which I just think is so important for young people to engage with you. I was not alone in my feelings. Many of the voters who arrived to vote told me that they had received no information on the people they were going to be voting for, and that they were finding out their electorates’ names for the first time when they showed up to vote. Not only this, but many people simply didn’t want to know: they knew about the presence of the biggest parties at a national level, but didn’t feel that there was much difference who was in charge at a local level.
- Voting is not really anonymous – but that is a good thing
I don’t know why, but I had always believed that the British vote was totally anonymous. I think back to my days taking a citizenship module at Uni and learning about what a great leap it was for the vote to become anonymous – and then I realise that it isn’t really anonymous at all. When you register to vote, you are assigned an electoral number. When you arrive to take your vote, you are handed a ballot paper. The poll clerk will write your electoral number down next to the ballot paper number, so that the government can keep a close check on which voter filled out which ballot paper. On the face of it, I was pretty horrified. However, the ability to pair a ballot with a citizen is actually pretty handy. Remember when it was almost time for Brexit and people vowed to use a pen on their ballot paper, for fear of their vote being altered? Well, in a ballot discrepancy it is possible to locate the exact ballot paper used by an individual. On top of this, if there were any threats of hate crimes or terrorism written on the ballot, for example, it would be possible to pinpoint the individual who was making these threats and report them accordingly.
- 15 hour shifts aren’t really that long
I’m not sure if its because I work 12 hour shifts in my usual job, but I found that my 15 hours as a poll clerk flew by. I brought enough snacks to get me through the day because my presiding officer let me know in advance that somebody tends to make a chippy run for dinner every year, so I wouldn’t need to bring a meal with me. I brought a book with me, and was able to stretch my legs a few times and take a jaunt to the local shop for a drink or just to get air. In between reading and, obviously, handing out ballot papers, I ended up just having some really great chats. There weren’t many silent moments – I’m not much of a talker, but I was content to sit back and listen for half an hour at a time for the guys to talk about travels across the world and (oddly!) different types of generators. Seriously. The majority of my time was spent making a huge dent in A Clash of Kings, and playing the new Harry Potter game on my phone whenever there were no voters indoors. We also liked to place bets on how many votes we would reach by each hour, which kept us quite entertained – though I realise now how entirely un-entertaining that actually sounds!
- Bring fluffy socks and a cup
So firstly – did not realise there wasn’t going to be a cup on site. Obviously everybody else had had that thought, so I sat and enviously watched them all sip on piping hot cuppas as my nose dripped in the cold. And that was the other thing; it might have been sunny outdoors, but inside the hall was really very cold. The heaters didn’t reach us across the room, and because we weren’t moving much my feet began to sting from the cold. One colleague had her husband actually drive over with her Ugg boots so she could warm herself up! The nice warm chippy dinner was pretty much the best thing in the world that day, and otherwise I just made sure I got up and walked around whenever I could. Next year I am bringing enough fluff to keep me warm for a week. I may or may not have suggested slankets.
I’m really thrilled to have been a poll clerk in the local elections this year, and I am definitely putting my name forward to join in again next time there is an election. The turnout was a bit of a disappointment, but it has really inspired me to dedicate more of my own time to encouraging others to get involved with politics – especially when it comes to educating my children about the importance of the vote.