Pencils were long been used polling stations in the UK. But not just any old pencil, special indelible pencils. These combined the reliable convenience of a pencil with the security of being indelible.
It was a winning combination, but note how I have put everything in the past tense. That is because they were what was used. But the main supplier (Shaw’s) has stopped selling them, switching instead to normal pencils. Moreover, as was made clear by the comments form electoral administration staff earlier this year when pencils caught the headlines over in the Europe referendum, many places have switched to using normal pencils.
That prompts a series of questions: how many places have switched? why have they switched? and, most importantly, should they have switched? Does this really open up the chance of fraud, or is that just one for far-out conspiracy theorists?
It looks like the higher costs of indelible pencils compared to normal pencils has pushed cost-conscious electoral administrators towards using normal pencils, so demand fell and then the main supplier exited the market.
Which is where, you would have hoped, the Electoral Commission would step in. Is such money saving justified? Should we be happy with the abandonment of indelible pencils? And, very pertinently given the widespread publicity over the rights and wrongs of pencils at the European referendum, what should be done in the future? (Side note: one Eurosceptic tabloid newspaper had a front page story about the use of pencils all ready to use the day after the referendum if there had been a Remain vote.)
Those would all be decent questions for the electoral regulator to ask, seek out the answers to and then ponder. So it was with some interest that I turned to the Electoral Commission’s report on the 2016 European referendum.
Good news: it has a section on pencils.
Bad news: it is written as if indelible pencils never existed, and instead has running through it an unstated assumption that indelible pencils don’t exist (which is wrong), that nothing has changed over the use of pencils (which is wrong) and that there’s nothing to consider about whether the change in type of pencils is desirable or not (which is wrong).
Worse news: I then asked the Electoral Commission’s press team for a comment, giving them a very clear nudge about what reality had been:
The angle I’m interested in is how indelible pencils used to be widely used but are now no longer sold by the main supplier (Shaws) – and so there has been a move from indelible to normal pencils which could encourage conspiracy theories. The report doesn’t seem to cover the issue of the switch in the type of pencils used at all, so I’d be grateful for a comment on:
a. What data you have about the extent of the switch from indelible to normal pencils, and
b. Whether the Electoral Commission encourages either type in particular
Which resulted in this erroneous response:
As far as we are aware indelible pencil have never been used in polling stations.
That’s not only at odds with reality and avoids the big clue given in my question, it’s also at odds with the Electoral Commission’s own past activity – because in 2003 the Electoral Commission ran a consultation, covering amongst other topics indelible pencils, and which asked whether or not they should still be used:
Should an alternative means of marking the voters preference other than the current indelible pencil be considered, and if so, what?
That consultation concluded that indelible pencils were a good solution which should continue to be used but that polling station staff should be better educated in the fact that indelible pencils are used.
Alas, in the intervening time, not only has the Electoral Commission forgotten what it used to know, and failed to notice what has happened in the real world, it’s also there being blind to the change that has happened under its noses.
It even twice failed to spot its own mistakes when prompted by me. The questions to the press office were a pretty big clue they’d got it wrong, but they were not the only time I asked. In conversation with Electoral Commission staff recently, I also made reference to the decline of the indelible pencil – but again rather than responding with a version of ‘bugger, we’ve got something wrong; hang on while we sort this out…’ I got the same sort of ‘nothing to see here’ erroneous response.
Perhaps at third time of prompting the Electoral Commission will start getting it right…
Footnote: if you’ve read this far, I suspect you will also enjoy this history of the indelible pencil.
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