Ballot Secrecy

There are 2 significant threats in any election where voting is done using paper ballots - ballot box stuffing and undue influence of voters' choices by impersonation.

Counterfeiting of ballot papers and stuffing the lot into the ballot box cannot be completely ruled out. Then, there is "chained balloting", where the perpetrator hands a marked ballot paper to a voter to cast and buys a blank ballot paper from the voter on return from the polling station. He then marks the blank paper for the next voter from whom he can buy another blank vote. Finally, there is also the possibility of persons impersonating voters whom they know will not be voting.

Having numbered ballot papers is still the best effective method to counter these threats.

Serial numbers on ballot papers enable strict accounting of all ballot papers issued and cast. That way, the number of papers found in the ballot box at the end of the election can be reconciled with the number of papers issued during the poll and the number of papers stocked before the poll began. This is a means to deal with the threat of ballot boxes being stuffed with false papers.

Ballot papers have to be numbered to provide evidence if there is an allegation of impersonation, i.e. that a voter has cast his vote pretending to be someone else. This is done if the court orders so, by matching the suspicious ballot paper with the counterfoil, on which the voter's registration number is recorded. If proved, the vote can then be subtracted from the declared election results. Without the ballot paper having a serial number, it will be difficult to establish such an allegation, and to adjust the declared election results accordingly.

While some argue that it would be better to nullify an entire election if there is any such electoral fraud, calling for a fresh election would be too costly for taxpayers and traumatic for the electorate if there are only a few allegations of impersonation.

So, is ballot secrecy compromised by reason of having a serial number?

Theoretically, it is possible for anyone with access to the ballot papers to identify who cast a particular vote. The link between the ballot paper number and the electoral register through the counterfoil does facilitate tracing from a ballot paper to a voter's identity on the register. However, ballot papers can be examined only under strict conditions, and there are safeguards that make it extremely difficult to find out how any particular voter voted.

After the count, all ballot papers and their counterfoils have to be sealed in the Supreme Court vault for 6 months, after which all the ballot papers and other election documents are destroyed. During those 6 months, these documents can only be retrieved by court order. The court will issue such an order only if it is satisfied that a vote has been fraudulently cast and the result of the election may be affected as a result. Our courts have issued no such order since elections have been held here since 1948.

The ballot paper number is there to protect the integrity of the democratic process, and not to undermine the secrecy of the vote.

The ballot paper number is still a feature of UK parliamentary and local government elections.

    Last Updated on: 01 Sep 2004