Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In Praise of Luddites and Battered Boxes

A rather battered, but well loved British Ballot Box.

Vote Early – Vote often!

It is probably a sign of my rather warped and cynical sense of humour, but the phrase ”Vote early and vote often” brings a wry grin to my lips. (Note 1)

Having decided that I would use the phrase, I thought my curious yeomen would appreciate it if I could find the derivation. Imagine my surprise when I found the quotation attributed to Al Capone. I admit I had an inkling that it would be of Merkin origin, but I had thought it would be a lot earlier.

One of the great comforts to me is the wonderful simplicity of the British democratic system. The adult population are asked to register to vote. On polling day, you wander down to your local polling station. A rather bemused lady gently puts down her knitting next to a thermos flask and a Tupperware sandwich box and crosses your name off the list before handing you a ballot paper. You go off to a little booth, place your ‘X’, fold the paper and return to the desk to post into the sealed ballot box.

Polling stations stay open from early morning to late in the evening giving everyone plenty of opportunity to vote. At the end of voting the ballot boxes are taken to a hall where the votes are counted by hand

As the candidates and their chosen invigilators watch, all of the votes are bundled together and stacked up. As the count continues, you can see how the various candidates are doing. For all of the flaws and the expense of what is and old-fashioned process – it is open, transparent and very difficult to cheat.

Which is why I am a Luddite when considering new technology in democratic process. I’m not even comfortable about use of Postal Votes. Even if the postal voting system is 100% foolproof it is certainly not transparrent and therefore is always going to raise doubts when the ‘right’ candidate doesn’t win.

John Prescott, the British Deputy Prime Minister goes out fighting for every vote.

The falling turnout in elections appears to worry politicians who are forever trying to find new, rather gimmicky ways to engage the stay away voters. (Note 2) Sadly, this tends to worry me somewhat as I am a firm believer that the ballot box is one of those things that proves you get out of life what you put in. While people continue to vote based on who has the better smile, the lesser of the evils or because they have always voted that way the longer we will get politicians who rate style over substance.

In a sleight of hand jump of logic, I could suggest that it is our lack of real thought when casting our vote that means we get politicians determined not to be seen as weak by changing their mind. Yes, I know it is incredibly ridiculous, but the way modern politics plays out, if a politician listens to an argument and changes their stance on a topic opposition parties jump on it and portray it as a weakness.

Still, it doesn’t stop us from trying. There are traditions of protest within Britain. The snaking columns of marchers protesting against something or other move through the streets of London accompanied by bemused policemen. The marches are usually peaceful and end with a few speeches in Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square.(Note 3)

Despite the tradition of peaceful protest it doesn’t do any harm if you dress up in a silly costume – it draws the attention of the cameras.

The petition is another method of trying to sway the government to act on an issue. The tradition is for activists to go out and collect signatures and then deliver the petition to Downing Street (Note 4)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, technology in the democratic process hit the news headlines. Almost two million Britons had exercised their right to petition the Prime Minister about road pricing using the electronic petitioning system on the Number 10 website. (Note 5)

Suddenly, I discovered a piece of technology that supported the democratic process. Off I went to explore the Number 10 website - and I admit, I was mightily impressed!

David Cameron is leader of the Conservative Party and believes we should love a ‘hoody’. Yes David. The ’hoodys’ love you too.

In one of those fantastic co-incidence moments, I had become incandescent with rage over a news item that very morning. A company has been buying up debt owed by Third World countries just before it is due to be written off and using the British Courts to reclaim up to ten times the amount they paid for the debt. (Note 6)

You really should read the story HERE. You really should read it. You will be as angry as I was.

Forgetting my nervousness about technology in the democratic process, I immediately went ahead and tried to start an electronic petition to complain.

Two weeks ago I tried to raise that petition and it still hasn’t appeared on the site! Still, let’s face it, all of this rambling on about voting may have lessened the impact of the story - you know the story I mean – the one you can find HERE.

It seems that I am right to distrust technology in the democratic process. For all of the fantastic intentions it seems that technology doesn’t improve on the tried and trusted methods. Someone pass me a pen and paper, I think I need to write a letter – if I can remember how!

So, I shall up now. Be warned though fair yeomen! I will be coming back to the topic of vulture funds. You really better go read the story because I might set a test!

From 14th June 2006, the industry standard Crozzy Standard has been applied to footnotes.

NOTE 1: Totally ignoring the fact that the mere fact that you have to explain a joke destroys the humour I plough on regardless. In a true democracy, such a statement becomes ironic because democracy is ”one person – one vote” set up (in theory at least) and so this is actually a rallying cry of the dictator and the corrupt. Click to return

NOTE 2: While the politicians were up in arms over the recent Celebrity Big Brother, they seem to have this idea that they should copy the format for the House of Commons. Using mobile phone texts to evict MPs from the House just seems a very strange and disturbing concept. Click to return

NOTE 3: I would like to contribute this as part of the “What Constitutes Britishness” debate. Despite all of the cynicism over whether they can actually change anything, the tradition of peaceful protest is maintained. When protests do turn violent, I like to think that the reaction from the British is to turn against the cause being put forward rather than give in to an uncivilised rabble.

Yes, coming from me in such a cynical piece that seems incredibly optimistic, but I have this fervent belief that violence NEVER solves an issue. Solutions only come about by winning hearts and minds. Click to return

NOTE 4: I’ve always wondered what happens to the petition after it is delivered. I wondered if they employed someone to seek out duplicate signatures or those of Mr D. Duck or Ms M. Mouse. Whether the petition is stored away in some great democratic archive or whether it is sent away for recycling.. Click to return

NOTE 5: I don’t support the petition. Something needs to be done to make public transport more attractive and to reduce the congestion on the roads. Click to return

NOTE 6: Do you remember Live 8? How Bob Geldof and Bono cosied up to the G8 leaders in Scotland and wrung out all of those good intentions of cancelling the debt of developing countries who follow democratic principles. This single court case wipes out the debt relief that Zambia would have enjoyed for a year! Read the story HERE. Click to return

Democracy is too valuable to trust to some random hamster inside a computer.

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