Saturday 21 March 2015

In Praise Of The Polling Station: Analogue Non-Design

By Hugh Pearman

“Nobody has ever asked me that before,” said the surprised person at the Electoral Commission. I’d called to ask about polling booths – those flimsy softwood-and-plywood folding arrangements, each equipped with its stubby pencil on a string, at which one stands to vote in UK elections. They appear to be precisely designed: room for just one person, the side screens discouraging overlooking, each one a tiny lectern at pretty much the right height, linked either in cruciform pattern or in rows. Ultra-basic but utterly fit for purpose, they have not changed in my lifetime – with the important exception of a low one now being mandatory at all polling stations for those needing it - and, so far as I can tell from archive photos, go back much further. Are there national design guidelines for these? Does a factory somewhere make them, or are they knocked together by local municipal workers from a manual?

The polling station is a kit of essential parts, like a field hospital, erected inside another building. Also like a field hospital, it is governed by very exact procedures, and is capable of coping with sudden rushes of people interspersed by longeurs. You won’t find many people exercising their democratic right at an average polling station at, say, 11 am on election day. Particularly not local elections with their low turnout. But the system is there to handle everyone. It’s also designed to be packed up quickly in an emergency and reopened elsewhere. Like stalls at a fete, when it rains.

The six essential parts of the kit are:

1. Notices. I have no idea what font it is, but the paper signs announcing POLLING STATION, usually crudely printed in black capitals on white paper, sometimes painted on wood, always make me think of Clement Atlee, Stafford Cripps, and postwar Austerity. Sometimes there are black arrows and “Way In” signs printed on other bits of paper to direct you to the right door. Once inside, other notices tell you what to do and there’ll be an enlarged version of the ballot paper with all the candidates’ names on it.

2. Trestle tables. Generally available in the school halls and community centres where polling stations are set up, so pressed into service. You need a minimum of three – one for the two poll clerks (a paid Presiding Officer and assistant, working a 16-hour day) one for the polling agents (observers appointed by the candidates), and a “sundries table”. Plus something to put the ballot box on.

3. The polling booths. These must be set up so that they are well lit and so people outside can’t look in and see how other people are voting.

4. String. Essential to fasten the mandatory thick soft-leaded pencils to the booths. The Electoral Commission guidelines have a checklist which includes: “Is the string attached to the pencils long enough for the size of ballot papers and to accommodate both right-handed and left-handed voters?” Though you don’t HAVE to use the pencils, you can bring your own pen.

5. The ballot box. Disappointingly, these seem to come in many varieties and materials but for me they really have to be large, battered, black-enamelled metal boxes. There are various kinds of seals – legal pink ribbon is good though plastic closures are now more common. There’s a pleasing ritual, just before the 7 am kick-off, when the Presiding Officer has to show everyone present that the box is empty, before sealing it. Except for the slot, obviously. After close of play at 10pm, the slot is sealed too, for the box to be transported to the count. You’d expect fleets of security vans nationwide but no: it seems the back seat of the Presiding Officer’s Ford Fiesta is just fine.

6. One or two chairs available so that any voter needing to can rest.

I treasure the ceremonial of polling day, which is a series of short walks and satisfyingly simple actions. Everything about it seems a form of historic re-enactment. First, the walk to the polling station. There will be an assortment of people outside, perhaps with party rosettes (rosettes! Antique knightly badges only otherwise seen on prizewinning animals at livestock, fruit and veg shows and the like). These people are called ‘tellers’ and want to know who’s voted so they can chase up the ones who haven’t. But they are only semi-official, must remain outside, and you are free to ignore them, grandly.

Inside, you proffer your voting card, are scrutinised by the two officials and carefully marked off on a register, then are handed your ballot paper. You move to the polling booth with its rough shelf, to mark your X. You fold the paper and progress to the ballot box, post it, and exit. The process is rapid but feels important, as it should.

Security is there in the form of a bored police officer outside, but apart from a very few well-publicised cases of intimidation, we all know that this is not usually where electoral fraud takes place – it’s in the postal voting and the handling of full ballot boxes and the town-hall counting where things can go awry. A polling station could be a target for attack but we have no experience of that yet in the UK. So we trust the reassuring, unchanged and distinctly functionalist set-up.

Enjoy this throwback analogue low-tech procedure while you can because presumably it won’t be long before we’re all voting online. That’s recommended by the Electoral Commission, will be much more convenient for everyone and will most likely greatly increase voter involvement. Then again, you can just imagine the whole system being hacked and crashing on the day.

Finally the amused press officer at the Electoral Commission got back to me on my polling-booth question. No, she said, there appears not to be a standard recommended design. Anything will do so long as it meets requirements for privacy and accessibility, it’s left up to the local authority Returning Officers. Nonetheless there seems to be this typical wood/plywood product. All I can tell you is that somehow they cost about £90 each to make and that Cornwall County Council, looking to save money, has trialled £15 snap-together cardboard ones instead.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal, architecture critic of the Sunday Times, and visiting professor in architecture at the RCA. He likes design that doesn't try too hard.


  1. You might still have "a bored police officer outside" in Cornwall, but they are long gone in London.

  2. Your blog article is nicely described and very informative. Yes I agree with your point in which you have described about the fair and smooth election for electing the right leaders. Thanks for sharing it and keep sharing.

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  3. Great article reminding me of my time as a Presiding Officer in Hermitage Dorset and Budleigh Salterton in Devon. A mad rush in either was if a group of four turned up at the same time. My colleague took his duties earnestly, complying with the rules to make sure the pencil stayed sharp after every "mad rush". Today in Cambodia and its elections, it is such a marked contrast and not at all for the better!