BBC Radio 4
« Previous | Main | Next »

Elections, votes and secrecy

Post categories:

Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 13:19 UK time, Thursday, 6 May 2010

Peterloo Massacre handkerchiefSo finally, after all the finger pointing, name calling, baby kissing and general rough and tumble of campaigning, election day is upon us. I made my cross on the ballot this morning and it had me wondering what objects we have on the site about voting and elections.

Fantastically, from Wakefield museums we have Britain's first secret ballot box, which was used in Pontefract in 1872. It seems like an incredibly important object to me. For the first time people could vote for a candidate without having to declare who they were voting for. Imagine having to go into your polling station today and tell the person behind the desk 'I would like to vote for candidate x' and that vote being on an open register for anyone to look at?

Not that this stopped people from voting at the time - or wanting to vote. This Peterloo Massacre handkerchief from 1819 bears witness to the earlier struggle for the right to vote. And the Suffragette penny, which will start the very final week of the radio series later in the year, shows how that struggle continued into the 20th century.

And finally how about two items from international elections, one telling the story of the journey into repression and one about the long walk out? This German election poster from 1933, the last 'free election' before Hitler passed the Enabling Act that ended democracy and made him a dictator, makes you remember the importance of elections and casting your vote.

And so does this sample ballot printed in a South African newspaper in 1994 to help explain to people how to cast their vote the country's first open, multi-racial election. I've been squinting at the photo and I think that Nelson Mandela is at the top of the ballot (I assume that it's alphabetical with the ANC at the top) and F.W. de Klerk at the bottom.

So there you are five objects that show us how important voting can be and how people have fought for their right to put a cross on a piece of paper. Although it turns out that if inventor, and Merthyr Tydfil grocer, William Gould had got his way, we would be dropping tokens in a box instead.

Take a look at his patented Automatic Secret Ballot Box. As a system it clearly has some drawbacks but think how quick the count would be. We could all be in bed by eleven.


  • Comment number 1.

    Re the South African ballot: Nelson Mandela/the ANC is seventh from the bottom - notice the black/green/yellow stripes of the logo. The first party is the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress of Azania). In South African elections, the first party on the ballot is chosen at random, and then the rest continue alphabetically, looping from Z back to A.

  • Comment number 2.

    "Imagine having to go into your polling station today and tell the person behind the desk 'I would like to vote for candidate x' and that vote being on an open register for anyone to look at"

    Well pretty much that's what happens isn't it?
    This morning I was asked for my name and address along with the number on my slip. these were put down in a register along side the number on the ballot paper.
    I took the paper in to vote and put it in the box.

    Is there any way that someone with the register, names and ballot numbers- along with the papers themselves could trace my vote?

  • Comment number 3.


    I asked about that issue. Apparently it is technically possible to match votes to people however you need a court order to get hold of the records.

    The purpose of this is for the detection of fraud. If it was not possible then I would not be able (even theoretically) to check that my vote had been counted correctly.

    Modern computerised systems for voting, especially those built on a strong cryptographic framework to ensure that results can not be tampered with, include features that allow a voter to confirm that their vote has been correctly registered. This corresponds to the current system in that it is not anonymous.

  • Comment number 4.

    Interesting point about the audit trail for looking into fraud. However, I was just trying to imagine the experience of having to state your choice publicly, either out loud or by writing it on an open register. Before the secret ballot I imagine it would only have taken a few of the less savoury local characters loitering near the polling station to change the minds of quite a few 'undecided voters'.

    @ctnguy - Thanks for correcting me. And I like the idea of having the first party on the ballot randomly selected. But why then run backwards alphabetically for the rest of the parties? Was that a new feature of the ballot in 1994? And if it's alphabetical (in whichever direction) how is the ANC in the middle? That's probably too many questions. Isn't it?

    Paul - Blog editor

  • Comment number 5.

    @Paul - sorry, perhaps I wasn't terribly clear. The first party is chosen at random, and then it goes in the normal alphabetical order from that party to the party that would be last in a normal alphabetical list. Then it starts from the party that would be first in a normal alphabetical list and goes also in the normal alphabetical order until all the parties are listed.

    Think of taking an ordinary alphabetic list of the parties and cutting it at a random place, and then taking the two sublists that are produced and swapping them. Actually, it's probably easier to just link to a clearer image of the 1994 ballot - there's one at

    In the 1994 election there was a bit of a wrinkle - the Inkatha Freedom Party initially wasn't going to take part in the election, but decided shortly before that it would. The ballot papers had already been printed, so a line for the IFP had to be manually pasted on to each ballot paper.

    Before 1994, South Africa had a FPTP constituency system; I don't know how the ballot papers were ordered back then. But the whole electoral system was completely replaced, so it's quite possible that the ordering was one of the new innovations.

    @FelixO - the cryptographic systems usually allow the voter to be sure that their vote was counted, without allowing them to prove to anyone else who they voted for.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hunger is not her aunt - a calm. Here we are Russian! Unfortunately I did not have big problems with English.

  • Comment number 7.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 8.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.