What Americans Could Learn From the British Elections

UK voting booth

Maybe voting in America should go retro like in Great Britain!

LONDON – I’m not quite sure what I expected when I showed up at my local polling station in London last Thursday morning to vote – for the very first time – as an ex-pat American in a British General Election. But it certainly wasn’t this: an “open air” voting booth, a single sheet of white paper perhaps seven inches long listing a bunch of political parties with a small box next to their names and – wait for it – a pencil – to fill out said ballot.

It gets better. At a certain point as you stood in line to vote, you were meant to split off into two separate lines based on the name of your street, with all streets in the district divided alphabetically. Fair enough, except that it turned out that most of the larger streets in my district were all clustered in the first half of the alphabet, so while about 18 of us stood waiting in the “Big Street” queue, two lucky souls sprinted ahead to the “Short Street” queue. (Call me crazy but had someone not thought to cross tabulate street size/population with alphabet when they devised this fairly straightforward time-saving device)?

I actually found myself feeling sorry for the volunteers at the “Short Street” queue” table when one person discovered that she actually belonged in the “Big Street” queue and had to rejoin our line. The poor souls looked absolutely heartbroken to have lost a potential customer.

When I finally made it up to the head of the line – which, to be fair, didn’t take very long given the microscopic length of the ballot – one volunteer took my last name, found it on a list and called out my voter registration number to a second individual who then assiduously checked me off a different list. Which was all well and good except that when I glanced down at the sheet of addresses I noticed that myself, my husband *and* the former owner of our house were all registered to vote at our address, even though he now lives in a very different part of the country.

While voter ID controversies here are nothing like they are in the U.S., the British Electoral Commission will be instituting a new law requiring photo ID for all voters starting in 2019, although that photo can come in the form of a free elections ID card. In the meantime, the whole thing was so quaint and – well – English, that I half expected some kindly old lady to rock up with a trolley full of tea and cakes and offer me some while I waited my turn.

When I got inside the “booth”  – a standing wooden structure divided in three by some flimsy cotton curtains  but otherwise entirely exposed from behind – I instinctively hunched my shoulders lest any of my neighbours catch me in the secret act of voting. Although the volunteers did ask us to fold our ballots before placing them in the ballot box, I noticed that a lot of people were just tossing theirs in with no concern for how the ballot got folded.

Hanging chads a la Bush vs. Gore not withstanding, I will confess that I sort of missed my hi-tech Illinois voting booth where, upon entering, I flicked a switch, was instantly enveloped by a heavy, dark curtain and was then free to move down the mechanized ballot, lever by lever, rewarded at the end with that giant shuffling noise that accompanied the opening of the curtain.

And then there was the ballot itself. There were, as I said, only about six or seven parties listed on a single sheet of paper. That’s it. The whole thing took about five seconds to complete. In contrast, the last time I voted in a general election in Illinois some nine or so years ago, back when I still lived in the United States, my husband and I had to literally study the ballot for a week beforehand to make up our minds on the many and varied political races where we could potentially cast a vote (the U.S. House of Representatives…the County Commissioners…the local school board…the district judges), not to mention the panoply of referenda which confronted us on everything from water management in our ecologically minded Chicago suburb of Chicago to highly complicated bond initiatives to finance local service provision.

The only reason to dally was to soak up the creative beauty of the minor parties competing in my district. Unlike the U.S., where states vary in the ease with which a third party can get its name on a ballot, here in the U.K., the barriers to standing for election are fairly low. Which means that – depending on where you live – in addition to the obvious national and regional choices you might expect to find on your ballot – such as Conservative, Labour or United Kingdom Independence parties –  you are equally likely to have the option of voting for the “Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers” party, the “Church of the Militant Elvis” party, or my personal favorite moniker, the “Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol” party.

I left the polling station, somewhat mystified that I had just exercised what is perhaps my most important right as a new-found British citizen in just under ten minutes.

But I also felt incredibly proud. We Americans once fought a revolution against the British Crown over the principle of “no taxation without representation.” After many years of paying taxes but not being able to vote, I’ll take that privilege over a fancy voting machine any day of the week.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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