The problem with poll cards, part two

David Bouchier leaflet - Camden LibDemsDuring the week I went over to help David Bouchier and his team in a council by-election in Camden. When knocking-up on the day, the most common query from people was ‘Do I need my poll card to vote?’ and that’s often the experience of people who go door-knocking on polling day.

I’ve written before about just how awful poll cards look:

Poll cards look dull, uninviting and give you no reason to get interested in, or excited by, the prospect of voting …

It looks like a boring official document. It hardly leaps out for my attention from the doormat and does not make even the most cautious of attempts to interest me in elections …

Compare this poll card with the way in which your gas or electricity or water bill is laid out. Those are also documents that people don’t really rush to the doorstep with enthusiasm to read, but the companies issuing them know it is in their interest to try to present the information as attractively as possible – and they manage it, without undermining the basic objective presentation of information. It’s about time the humble poll card got the same treatment.

But these polling day experiences highlight an additional problem: there is a widespread misunderstanding amongst the public as to the role of the poll card. Uncertainty over whether or not you need a poll card can put people off if they don’t have it to hand (or if it got to them, which is a particular problem in urban areas dominated by flats).

Given that polling cards are not required to vote, is it not about time to test out having a design of them changed to more clearly get this message over so as to build up long term awareness, and also to test using the official publicity campaigns for elections to publicise this information more?

I’ve not seen any research that tries to single out the extent of the problem, so testing possible actions rather than leaping to definite action makes sense. What doesn’t seem to make sense is to continue as if there were not so many people raising the issue on polling day.

5 responses to “The problem with poll cards, part two”

  1. How about it being made obligatory to sign for your ballot paper? Easily done with a kalamazoo type ballot paper.
    Also what about making the reciept of benefits requiring a link to being on the electoral register, such as housing benefit? One couple in Merthyr have just been caught co-habiting and in so doing have illegally claimed £125,000 in housing benefit!

  2. Possibility, and I’ve no idea if this is done already.

    We know polling numbers from EARS. Why not trial a few different designs as part of our target mailings? “you can use this as a poll card at the polling station” with all the details. Have tob e careful for not offending people, but there’s potential there to be helpful, and if it’s only going to our pool of target voters (because we can’t afford to mail to everyone) then if done right it could increase turnout a bit, most importantly amongst our Ds&Ps.

    • Mat: Interesting idea, but would run in to problems with the law against imitation poll cards.

      Mike: I’m not sure how adding in an extra requirement deals with the issue of people wrongly thinking they need their poll card? They’d need lots of publicity to tell them about the new requirement, but that could instead go on telling them about the existing rules?

  3. The elephant in the room in this discussion for me is the question of ID at polling stations. I train political activists overseas for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and our system (or non system) of identification of people voting at polling stations is received with horror and amazement in most countries (developed and developing). The reality of the polling card in my view is that it is effectively being used as the ID for the voter, even if it is not supposed to be. So for me discussion of reform needs to go back to the first principles on this question – what is this for and if we change the cards so people will not take it along, what impact does that have on the issue of personation (voting for someone else)?

  4. Mark, wasn’t actually aware there were legal restrictions, although of course there ought to be. But I suspect as long as we made sure it was clear what it was we’d be ok, I know a lot of targetted stuff has polling number on it anyway, right? I know ours did.

    Also, although “you don’t need your card” is true, “it’s better to know your number” is also true; not having cards and not knowing number was the major delay in Sheffield this time was it not?

    I’m sure we could do something, worth a try, especially with differential turnout in the locals making a major impact; we have two parish councils we’re competing in, be nice to control Hebden Bridge properly next year.

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