Election 2015: What CAN'T you do in a polling station?

Polling station sign Image copyright ALAMY

The process of voting in a UK polling station hasn't changed much in years. But what is and isn't allowed in there?

Most British people are familiar with what goes on inside a polling station. You march in, possibly brandishing your polling card, you give your name and address, someone finds you on a list and gives you a ballot paper. You then head off to a booth to use your stubby pencil to mark your X.

In 2010 we published a guide to what was and wasn't allowed in the polling station. But some issues have arisen since then so here's an update.

Can you take a selfie?

There's nothing in the law that specifically bans taking photos, but the Electoral Commission very strongly discourages any photography inside a polling station, primarily because of complex laws about maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. For instance, it's illegal to reveal how someone else has voted, which could happen inadvertently via a sloppy selfie. In addition, taking a photo of a ballot paper's unique identification number is against the rules. The key is a law against releasing any information "obtained in a polling station", which is in order to protect the integrity of the poll.

The Electoral Commission says: "Due to the potential breach of the law, intentionally or not, we strongly advise against any form of photography taken inside a polling station. However, if a voter would like to highlight their participation in the elections, we suggest this is done outside the polling station before or after they vote." Consequently, you will see "no photography" signs inside many polling stations.

There are strict penalties for breaches of the law. At the European elections last year people were warned that they could face a fine of £5,000 or six months in prison if they revealed how someone else voted, even accidentally. In practice, election staff might ask anyone taking a picture to delete it rather than go straight to the police. "It would depend on exactly what they were taking a photograph of," one electoral services manager says.

Can you tweet about voting?

The Electoral Commission warns against doing it inside the polling station, even if it's about your own vote. Elsewhere you are free to publicise your vote. However, as above, there are strict laws against revealing someone else's vote, including influencing whether they publish it themselves. Under Section 66 of the Representation of the People's Act it is a criminal offence to communicate information about the way someone has voted or is about to vote, and specifically to "directly or indirectly induce a voter to display his ballot paper after he has marked it so as to make known to any person the name of the candidate for whom he has or has not voted".

Can you bring a pet?

Image copyright PA

Dogs may not yet be entitled to vote but they are allowed to come and watch as long as they don't disrupt the vote. Before the 2008 London Mayoral election polling staff were issued with advice stating that dogs had to be in an "accompanying" role rather than "free-range". In cases where a voter has two or more dogs and will struggle to control them while casting their ballot, polling station staff may be able to hold the dogs' leads. Rural constituencies might have cases of voters riding to the polling station. In such cases, horses and ponies should be tethered up outside. There is no guidance on other animals such as rabbits, ferrets or pot-bellied pigs, so any decision will be at the discretion of presiding officers.

Can you wear political clothing?

People shouldn't wear party political clothing. At the last general election Nigel Tonkin, then Westminster Council's head of administrative services, said that context was important. "There's a candidate standing in Westminster as a pirate," he said. "And if he comes in to vote in a pirate costume as is likely, we won't turn him away. The same goes for any supporters coming to vote as pirates."

But voters dressed in party T-shirts would not be able to enter the polling station as it may be intimidating. Political figures in the wider sense may be fine, for instance a T-shirt of Che Guevara would be acceptable. The onus is on encouraging people to vote. But a line has to be drawn somewhere. Pyjamas are allowed. A topless man is okay. But a topless woman would be too distracting, Tonkin said.

Can I cover my face with a hoodie or something else?

Image copyright AP

Yes. It's true that polling station staff are on the lookout for people trying to vote twice by impersonating someone else on the register. But there's no requirement for voters to show their face. At the last election Rob Connelly, head of electoral services in Birmingham City Council, said: "If you can't see someone's face we can ask them the statutory questions - things like their name and address. We wouldn't stop someone voting if they're wearing a hoodie or a burka." The rules have not changed since then, the Electoral Commission says.

Can I vote if I've been drinking?

Yes. Polling station staff cannot refuse a voter simply because they are drunk or under the influence of drugs. Only if the voter is disruptive will they be asked to return when they have sobered up.

Can I wear a giant rosette?

Image copyright Getty Images

No. The only people permitted to wear a rosette are the candidates and their polling agents. The rosette must be plain and not refer to the candidate or bear a slogan. Size used to be an issue. While the Electoral Commission doesn't specify dimensions at this election, guidance in 2008 set out a maximum width of "three to four inches".

Can I discuss the candidates with my partner?

No. Political discussion is banned inside the polling station. Polling station staff will intervene if people are heard to be discussing the merits of different candidates or parties - it may unsettle other voters. Neither can one ask someone whom they are voting for as this will compromise the secrecy of the poll. If you want to debate the pros and cons of a certain candidate you must do so outside. Neither can people distribute party leaflets or other literature in the polling station. Anyone seen doing so will be asked to take them outside.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption No political discussions are allowed while voting

Can members of the Royal Family vote?

Technically even the Queen could vote. However, she chooses not to do so as it is considered unconstitutional not to remain politically neutral, according to the official website of the monarchy.

Can I play music?

Only if it doesn't disrupt other people. If you are listening to music on headphones you'll need to remove them when being addressed by polling station staff. They will want to confirm your name and other details. If your personal music player is playing at high volume in the polling booth you'll be asked to turn it down or leave. The same goes for loud mobile phone conversations.

Do I have to mark my cross with a pencil on a string?

No, if you prefer you can use a pen, even if it's your own. While a cross is usually called for, you could theoretically mark the box with a tick instead. The important thing is that your voting intention is clear.

I've made a mistake and voted for the wrong person. Can I vote again?

Yes, providing you haven't already posted your ballot paper in the box. Return to the desk and tell staff what has happened. They'll be able to cancel your ballot paper and issue you with a new one.

I'm nervous. Can a friend come and help me?

You're welcome to enter the polling station with a friend if they are also eligible to vote there. But voting is a private matter so you must be alone when you go into the polling booth. If the friend is not registered to vote there then they will not be allowed inside the polling station. If you have a disability, or are unable to read the ballot, and cannot vote on your own, you may come with a companion. The presiding officer can also help.

Can I bring my children to show them how it works?

Of course. Polling station staff are expected to be welcoming to under-18s so as not to put off the voters of tomorrow. In exceptional cases where there are large numbers of young people in the station, presiding officers have the power to ask them to wait outside. If someone has several young children, a member of the polling station staff can look after them while the parent or guardian votes.

Can my child mark the X for me?

A child is not allowed to write the X for an adult.

Can I write a message to the politicians?

You can but it may mean your vote won't be counted. There's a tradition of deliberately spoiling your ballot. "None of the above" is one of the more polite ways of showing you are not apathetic, just contemptuous of the candidates on offer. These votes are included in the overall turnout. However, if you wish to vote for a candidate you should avoid writing comments in the margin. It might confuse the counters and lead to your vote being deemed doubtful and subsequently rejected.

Can I sign my ballot paper?

People do occasionally sign their ballots. If the name is identifiable your vote will not count. They are considered rejected ballots because the voter has revealed their identity and breached the rules of a secret ballot. Signing your ballot paper was fairly common in the 19th Century when candidates would pay people to vote for them. Under that system it was possible for the candidate to check up later who had voted for them by looking for signatures, and pay out accordingly. Today, however innocent the motive, a signature renders a ballot "rejected".

What if the polling station has to suddenly close?

With around 50,000 polling stations dotted across the country, general elections are a huge logistical undertaking. When something does go wrong, quick thinking by staff can save the day. Speaking in 2010, Connelly recalled a fire taking place in one of his polling stations at an earlier election. "We had to evacuate everyone and move everything out. So we opened the station from the back of a car. You get the boot open and hope it's not raining." Tonkin used a car once when the school caretaker didn't arrive on time. "Another time we got to the polling station, only to find the store of ballot papers had been thrown out by the cleaners the night before. We had to hurriedly send out for replacements."

This is an update on an article written for the 2010 election

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