To quote the intro to The Six Million Dollar Man, ‘We have the technology…’
To do lots of things, it’s true, but one of them is to assist in the rise to unstoppable power of a demagogue who might make the trains run on time in the UK, but could do the other bad stuff too. It only took an election to mutate 1930s Weimar Germany from decadence; soft, self-serving middle classes and bone poor workers looking for someone to blame; into Kristallnacht and beyond. From the x in the box came the the armbands, the camps and the chimneys. Herr Hitler welded his country with fear and sharpened them against the world, but it all began with a ballot box.
Oh you of short attention span, here’s the point.
In the UK, and for that matter across the whole of Europe inside the circle of something approaching distrust we call the EU, there is an election going on.
For Britain it’s over as I write, for we vote on a Thursday (don’t ask why). Others in Europe feel that Sunday is a better day, so we have to hold that thought, with all our completed ballots locked away until we can all announce synchronised results, Eurovision style.
In Britain we coupled the big meaningless gesture of who ends up in the Brussels Parliament (oh yes and Strasbourg once a month when all the Euro MPs pretend to do governance there as they pretend to in Brussels), with a small meaningless gesture.
The mini-me of votes is for local municipalities, that provide the grunt services like parks and garbage collection, though most of their funding comes as handouts from central government.
But it’s the process I want to talk about. For the procedure is exactly the same to elect a British national government.
For those who have not had the pleasure of voting in the UK, a little background. Stick with me here, as it all has a bearing on what could allow in that aforementioned strutting fascist.
Some weeks before election day, a pasteboard postcard addressed to each individual voter arrives in the mail. It has the voter’s name and address, naturally and a polling number to show that you are indeed entered on the list of people entitled to vote.
Now here’s where it gets sinister though it is still disguised with tourist brochure quaintness.
On the day, schools, libraries and town halls put up black and white signs in graphics from at least 80 years ago in capital letters the words POLLING STATION. Inside, you walk towards the kindly Women’s Institute style volunteers seated at a makeshift table guarding the battered tin ballot box and surrounded by a sheaf of new voting slips and a copy of the electoral register. It’s as traditional as a summer fete.
You announce your name and address, or if you have remembered it, show the ladies the pasteboard card with your name and number. The first lady calls out a number, either from your card or printed beside your name on the electors’ list. The second lady writes that number onto the counterfoil of the ballot paper she is about to tear off and issue. It is that paper that you will take to the flimsy three sided ply-board booth with its stubby pencil on a string so that you can make your vote in secret. The British make great play of the secret bit. And for it to remain secret you are instructed to fold your vote before you stuff it into the slot in the sealed box under the watchful gaze of the nice lady who gave you the slip.
One thing I forgot to mention. Both the ballot slip you were given and its counterfoil are printed with a number too. Ostensibly this is a security system. If need be, the votes in the box can be cross referenced with the counterfoils, in order to stop people stuffing a few more phoney votes into the box when the nice lady is distracted.
But you will also recall that upon the numbered counterfoil of your voting slip retained by the lady has been written your unique voting number from the electoral register. See where I’m going here? All secrecy has in theory been lost.
I know that none of the present national parties will be knocking on my door a few months from now if I voted for the ‘wrong’ party. Not today. Not this year. Nevertheless, we have all filled in those machine readable forms in which we are instructed to write within those pale green boxes in black pen. If character recognition can work on the scrawls they must encounter with all 26 letters, you can guarantee machine-reading all those ballots with their simple x in one of a few boxes would be a breeze for the mal-intentioned.
And of course there is no real theoretical necessity to un-secret the ballot in this way. Other systems use a number printed solely on the counterfoil and it is there where traceability ends. The voter’s act of voting is recorded but her/his identity will forever remain outside the box. By this system individuals cannot vote twice and as long as the number of votes in the box adds up to the number of counterfoils then there has been no fraud.
But above all it’s the principle. Secret should mean just that.
‘Come off it’, I hear you shout back at your screen. ‘This is never going to happen. You’re a paranoid conspiracy theorist. I live in a society where Klingons and Jedi Knights are recognised on the US Census as, dare I say it, religions. We are just so tolerant these days.’
But the Weimar was uber-tolerant too – and look where that got them…
As I was saying, “We have the technology”.