Vote with a smiley face: electoral guide says X doesn't have to mark the spot

Guidance to returning officers from the Electoral Commission says voters can even mark their choice with a naked woman, preferably smiling

If six weeks of campaigning, with its repetitive soundbites, ducked questions and mudslinging has left you filled with joy, you will be allowed to show it on your ballot paper.

The official body supervising the British general election on Thursday has said votes should be counted if support is expressed by the drawing of a smiley face, instead of a cross, as is requested at the top of the ballot paper.

Also permitted is writing “yes”, and drawings that may well be accepted are those of a flower, and sketches of naked people, though best if they are smiling.

The Electoral Commission guidance covers what can be accepted as a ballot that should be accepted. Individual returning officers ultimately make the decision, and would prefer the traditional cross in the box against a candidate’s name was used.

How not to vote: an example from the guidance for returning officers. It states: ‘A ballot paper must not be rejected because the vote is ... marked [with] other than a cross’.
How not to vote: an example from the guidance for returning officers. It states: ‘A ballot paper must not be rejected because the vote is ... marked [with] other than a cross’. Photograph: Electoral Commission

But Mark Rogers, returning officer for Birmingham and its 10 parliamentary constituencies voting, said the presumption was to try to include ballots: “As long as the voter’s intention is clear then we will make every effort to count the ballot paper.

“So the smiling face, for most returning officers, would be acceptable,” he said. “The smiling face is clearer as it’s giving an emotion that is positive.”

The commission’s guidance covering the 2015 general election, entitled Dealing with doubtful papers in GB, advises: “A ballot paper must not be rejected because the vote is ... marked [with] other than a cross … marked by more than one mark … if an intention to give a vote for not more than one candidate clearly appears on the ballot paper.”

It has published a list of accepted marks, based in part on past legal cases. Returning officers are advised to accept as a legitimate vote a smiley face in the box against a candidate’s name, writing the candidate’s name and party in the box, the word “yes” against a candidate, circling the name of the prospective MP or the words “elect” followed by a candidate’s name.

The smiley face was associated with the acid house dance craze that came to prominence in Britain in 1988, heralding the so-called second summer of love.

Draw a flower in the box against a candidate’s name and that will count as a vote in Birmingham, Rogers says. But other returning officers may not – it is at their discretion.

It used to be that ballot papers were declared spoiled, and thus not counted, if anything other than a cross was marked on the paper.

Rogers said: “Symbols are generally speaking OK, but judgment is involved.” Asked whether a frowning face would be acceptable, Rogers said: “I’d want to have a good look at the ballot paper.”

Rogers said he had counted as a yes vote a ballot on which a picture of a naked woman had been drawn in the box against a candidate’s name. How did this show a positive intention? “She was smiling, was my recollection,”Rogers said.

He added: “I would be trying to rule the vote in and not rule it out.”

The commission’s guidance says reasons to reject ballots include if more than one candidate has been voted for or if the voter writes something that identifies themselves. So if you must turn your ballot into a work of art, leave it unsigned.

Returning officers would prefer people vote with a cross against the person’s name they want to be their MP. It is clearer, less of a headache, and a mass outbreak of artistic expression at the voting booth may delay the final result becoming known, which is more eagerly awaited than usual because of the expected tightness of this election.

General elections see only a fraction a ballot papers rejected, with one of the main reasons being that the voter’s intention is unclear.

A report on the 2010 general election found: “The proportion of ballots that are rejected at the official count continues to be very small. In 2010 it was less than three in every thousand votes cast.”

The report by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University said: “The number of ballot papers rejected at the count continues to be but a small fraction of the total cast (0.28%), and is hardly changed compared with 2010.

“The bulk of these are because the voter has either not marked the ballot paper or made their intention clear. In just over a quarter of cases voters have chosen more than one candidate in a single-member election.”


Vikram Dodd

The GuardianTramp

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