Despite my regular complaints about the awful design that disgraces most poll cards, it was only this month whilst reading The British General Election of 1950 that I discovered they were introduced as (relatively) recently as the 1950 general election.
Previously political parties had produced their own poll cards, distributing them to voters to tell them when and where to vote, along with their polling number. The Representation of the People Act 1948 changed that, introducing official poll cards and also the ban on anyone else producing imitation poll cards.
This was not without controversy, as in the days long before party names appeared on ballot papers the party-specific poll cards were a convenient way of highlighting which candidate was from the favoured party. The ban on imitation poll cards, and especially the cautious reaction of parties designing leaflets in reaction to it (a reaction which has got rather watered down in the decades since), led to complaints that the new system meant voters were less well informed than previously.
This was heightened by the failure of some Returning Officers to get their new poll cards out in time, along with complaints that the death of party-specific poll cards would remove the handy convenience for both voters and parties of voters handing in a poll card to tellers at polling stations in a way that easily indicated not only that they’d voted but also who they supported.
Again, that’s something which has changed in practice over the years even as the legislation has remained nominally the same, with parties looking for other ways instead to get voters to bring something to the polling station to indicate their support for their party.
A handy reminder that it isn’t just the law that matters – it’s how cautiously or not people react to a change in the law and how habits evolve even when statutes are unchanged.