Leading Article: Your vote should be absolutely secret

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IF YOU voted yesterday, your ballot paper can be traced. Not that a police officer is going to turn up on your doorstep wanting to know why you voted for the Conservative Party. Nor, it is to be hoped, will the security services be tracing those who voted for the British National Party or any other unlikeable candidates. But it is possible for them to do so, by matching the serial number on the ballot paper against the electoral roll number written on the counterfoil by the clerk in the polling station.

The practice of numbering ballot papers is a serious weakening of the right to secret voting, itself central to democracy. The reason for it is to deal with those rare cases of impersonation, when a voter arrives at the polling station to find that someone pretending to be them has already voted. The bogus vote can then be substituted by the genuine one. But, as Liberty, the civil liberties campaign, points out, it is only going to be once a century or so that fraud will make a difference to the outcome of a close election.

The Home Office review of electoral law should take this opportunity to guarantee the integrity of the secret ballot. Of course, the fact of whether someone has voted or not should be recorded, to prevent impersonation or double-voting, but there should be no way to trace how anyone has voted. If the number of fraudulent votes could affect the outcome, then elections should be re-run. It would be worth this rare inconvenience to ensure the principle of secret voting.

In contrast, voters should not be alarmed by the alleged threat to their civil liberties of the sale of electoral registers themselves. Some people may be surprised that this information can be exploited for commercial purposes, but it is public information, available free of charge at any library. Once these data are computerised, they can be added to other information and turned into a valuable resource for marketing, for which companies will pay. Though voting should be secret, the names and addresses of electors are, with few exceptions, public information.