On Telling

As I started to write this a while back, there were council elections going on in much of England and Wales. Tomorrow, there will be another set of elections, as we vote in European elections for what will hopefully not be the last time. And so there’s a good chance that as you go to vote you’ll be confronted by someone wearing a rosette with the logo of one or other political party, asking for your name and address. You might, understandably, wonder why they want that information, and what it is they’re doing.

As someone who has been that person with the rosette on many, many, occasions, I know that a lot of people are suspicious, or even angry, so I thought I’d do a brief explanation of what it is these people, called tellers, are actually doing.

First, and most important, they don’t want to know how you voted, and they’re not trying to persuade you to vote for them. In fact, while the rules for what tellers can do vary from local authority to local authority, most of them are banned from talking to you before you vote. (I say “most of them” because the guidance given is always to listen to what the poll workers say, and different poll workers give you different rules).

No, what they’re trying to do is save both you and their parties some time.

You see, in Britain, and in other countries without compulsory voting, differential turnout is what wins elections. You need to make sure that your own voters are coming out to the polls, in higher numbers than your opponents, if you want to win. So what you do, is you spend most of the time in between elections getting as much data about the voters as you can. You knock on their doors and ask them how they’re going to vote — and if they’re not voting for you, you find out who they are voting for instead. You put out leaflets with surveys that people can fill in, and hope they send them back to you. You do everything, in short, to figure out who is likely to vote for you, who is likely to vote for your opponents, and how you can get the people in the first group to go out and vote.

So on polling day, if you live in a closely-fought ward or constituency, and if you have been identified by one of the parties as being likely to vote for them, you will find leaflets through your door at 5AM, followed by constant door-knocking from about nine in the morning through to nine PM, as they increasingly desperately try to get you out of the door to the polling station.

But of course, the parties don’t want to waste their time knocking on the doors of people who’ve already voted, so they use tellers.

What tellers do — all they do — is stand outside a polling station and ask you for your polling card number or your name and address. Then they give that to the team from their party — either on a piece of paper collected every couple of hours and entered into spreadsheets or, more recently, by using mobile apps that knock names and addresses directly off the knocking-up list.

If you were on that party’s list, you would no longer be bothered by their canvass teams trying to get you out to vote. And if you weren’t — well, it would make no difference to your life anyway, at all.

Now there are a couple of important things to note about this. The first is that you’re not giving the parties access to any information they won’t already have soon after. Every political party will get, shortly after the election, copies of the marked registers. Those will show them exactly who did and didn’t vote — not who they voted for, but whether they voted at all. They’ll use that information for the next round of elections, targeting likely voters before abstainers. You’re only allowing them to get that information a few days early.

It’s also the case that the people you’re talking to, at least, *will not* know what canvass data their party has on you. It is likely that they’re not going to be knocking on your door anyway — they’ll only be doing that with people who are confirmed as voters for their party, and given the number of parties standing for election it is unlikely that whichever one the teller is campaigning for will be the one you choose.

It’s also the case, and this is something that people might find hard to believe, that this is something where multiple parties will work together. On a busy election day, in a hotly-contested seat, you’ll occasionally find members of different parties telling outside the same polling station — I’ve had it happen myself. I’ve been a teller at polling stations where there have been me, a Labour teller, and a Conservative teller, all sat together and chatting (this was before the recent turn of the Conservative Party into batshittery — I strongly doubt you’ll find a Tory affable enough for this to work now). When that happens, you’ll take it in turns to ask the voters for their details, and share them with the other parties — it lightens the workload for all of you, and it means the voters aren’t being bothered by multiple people.

And this is the thing to remember about tellers when they approach you. Whatever party they’re from, they’re probably those members of that party who are most keen on doing their democratic duty. Different jobs on polling day attract different kinds of people, and tellers, for the most part, tend to be the ones who are most keen on working across party lines, the ones who are most interested in just getting people to vote, and in getting democracy working.

Political volunteers, of all parties, are for the most part people who are doing a lot of work for no reward other than the knowledge that they are making the world a slightly better place by their own lights. So don’t be scared of them, and don’t give them a hard time (unless they’re Brexit Party, in which case do what you like).

Anyway, I hope you get out and vote tomorrow — Ideally for the Lib Dems, if not then at least for a Remain party, and if you can’t bring yourself to do that, at least for a non-fascist. And when you do, be nice to the tellers. They’re trying to make your life easier.

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