Friday, 13 September 2013

The horror of the marked register

One particularly gruelling part of my summer holiday was spending several hours (spread out over a month because I really, really didn't want to do it) was copying data by hand from the Guildford borough marked register to the Lib Dem election software database.

But since explaining what the marked register is will take a while, here's a brief summary of the rest of this post:

1. Everyone registered to vote is listed on the 'electoral register'
2. The electoral register is available to political parties and candidates
3. Parties and candidates use it to work out who the voters are for campaigning purposes
4. When people vote, staff at polling stations cross their name off on a copy of the electoral register
5. This is called the 'marked register' and records who has voted - but not how they've voted
6. Parties and candidates use it to find out who has voted so they know who to target their campaigning at next time (e.g. not at people who never, ever vote)
7. The copy of the marked register my local party got was a paper version
8. This meant I spent far too long entering information about 80,000+ individually into excel
9. This is known by me as 'the horror of the marked register'

Now to continue with the full explanation:

Every area in the country has an electoral office whose main job is to look after their part of the national electoral register. This is basically a massive great list of the names and addresses of everyone in the country who is registered to vote.

In practice, there are several different sub sets of the register though. For example, there's the postal voter electoral register which only contains people who are registered to vote by post and different ones for different elections containing only the people eligible to vote in them.

Now anyone can walk into any electoral office in the country and ask to see the electoral register. You can also buy a copy of it if you like - which a lot of commercial organisations, particularly marketing and credit reference agencies, do.

But since the register has people's names, addresses (and quite often dates of birth and phone numbers) on it, everyone has the option to opt out of being listed on the publicly and commercially available version of the register - and if you want to do this you can do it whenever you fill in your details to register to vote.

However, political parties and candidates have the right to get a copy of the full electoral register so that they can find out who the voters are.

We do lots of things with the list of voters, often quite sophisticated things nowadays with our fancy new election software (such as remembering who's interested in education policy and who cares more about bin collections) but at the heart of it is using it to ask voters to vote for us, making notes of who's said they're going to vote for us and then trying to find out if they've actually voted for us.

And that brings me back to the marked register.

When someone goes to vote, the people working in the polling station will cross their name off of a copy of the electoral register. This copy is known as the marked register because it's been marked to show who's voted - not how they've voted but just whether they've voted.

Political parties and candidates are also entitled to get a copy of the marked register - which we duly did in Guildford following the local elections in May. We use this to work out how likely people are to vote and this in turn makes our life easier because it lets us target our campaigning activities next time to people whose likelihood to vote makes it worthwhile in terms of the effort it takes.

But, since Guildford borough only gives out its marked register in a paper format, rather than digitally, I got to experience the mind-numbing tedium of entering data about 80,000 or so voters into excel. And this tedium, which must be repeated after every single election, is the horror of the marked register.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

New Purpose

As is pretty obvious, I haven’t been blogging a lot lately (no updates for over a month - woo!). This is mainly because I’ve found myself both busy with other things and tending to vent about topical issues elsewhere rather than having the time to sit down and blog about them.

I don’t want to give up on this blog though so I’ve decided to adopt a new approach to it. While I’m not going to rule out writing posts about current events, I’m going to try to focus much more on posts actually explaining the process of politics itself and the background of current political stories.

My reasoning behind this is that people like me who are actively involved in politics aren’t normal. We’re actually very, very weird. Most of the people I know in politics know about and could name at least a dozen people on average from each major political party. Polls show that the average person, on the other hand, mainly just knows the name of the Prime Minister, the name of the leader of the opposition and possibly the name of the Chancellor.

This really reinforces the idea of the ‘Westminster bubble’ - a little world of its own where politicians, journalists, commentators and other members of the media reside and are hyper aware of what’s going on while outside of the bubble the vast majority of the country has only the vaguest of inklings about things which people in the bubble assume to be common knowledge.

If I were to talk about RISOs, Focus leaflets, knocking up, GOTV, Connect and PPCs most of my fellow Liberal Democrats would instantly know what I was talking about. Almost everyone else would be completely baffled.

And since most people don’t have the time or inclination to spend the equivalent of a part time jobs worth of effort to be involved in politics to the extent that people inside the Westminster bubble are, I’ve decided it would be helpful if there was someone out there actually breaking political stories and processes down into something which you don’t need to be a complete politics geek to understand.

Given that my doing this would actually give this blog a purpose, and give people more of a reason to read it, I consider that changing the point of this blog to that is something of a win-win.

So look forward to seeing, in the near future, an explanation of the esoteric and occult world of marked and unmarked electoral registers - what they are, why they matter and what politicians do with your information that’s recorded on them.