Public Services Management: Champions of the free vote - The people who guard your polling rights at home are also defending that principle round the world. Liza Donaldson asks them why

Click to follow
HOW MANY times have you cast your vote in an election without giving the matter a second thought? Few realise that behind the ballot paper is an unsung band of heroes who guard - sometimes at great risk - the tradition of free and fair elections. These men and women will play a crucial role on 27 and 28 April in the South African elections, on 5 May in Britain's local elections and on 9 June in European elections.

The work of the British ballot box brigade has gained such renown that their system has been exported. Large parts of the globe that used to be parts of the Empire today have electoral systems modelled on Britain's. But the achievements of these people have had little recognition at home.

The members of the group, made up of council officials who run public elections in the UK, often travel to act as electoral midwives in emerging democracies by monitoring their elections. One is Eric Dixon, former chief executive of Kirklees Council West Yorkshire, who is heading up a team of 30 council chief executives from Britain that is part of the 320-member European Union observer corps which is monitoring the elections in South Africa. Speaking from there, he said: 'This election is special. It is the first democratic election they have ever had in their history. Until this one, elections have been by a minority of people, electing governments representing a minority. It is also the biggest election we have ever monitored, with some 22 million voters worldwide.'

Judge Johann Kriegler, chairman of South Africa's independent electoral commission, reminded the world that the people of his country 'must learn about democracy' because 'there is no reliable, unimpeachable tradition of democracy in South Africa that would stand the scrutiny of Europe. We start from scratch'.

The observers will help decide whether the election is 'substantially free and fair'. Mr Dixon is an old hand at the democratic process. He represents Solace International, an offshoot of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which has contracts to train South African election workers and run the election for its citizens in Britain. He explained: 'Most of the rules are familiar to us, because the system of government originated in Britain and the election system is similar. I have run elections since 1946 and it is really very familiar to find that all the rules - about secret voting, about the ballot form and what is a valid vote - all this came originally from Britain.'

Mr Dixon, who also is a former chief executive of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, said that even the system being used in South Africa of marking identity papers and the hands of voters with invisible ink - to prevent double voting - was 'invented by the British' to overcome the lack of an electoral register in Zimbabwe's first election in 1980.

As a former returning officer and because of his African experience Mr Dixon has been stationed in South Africa's strife-torn Natal region, but he demonstrates the composure under pressure that marks this breed of election watchdogs. 'I go around this area without any feeling I am threatened.

'I have been in some pretty dangerous places. In Zimbabwe we went up roads that were mined and our convoy could certainly have been ambushed. We have been in places where the bullets have flown. But I never worried about it. It is all part of the business of elections. You just take precautions.'

Perhaps, like other election experts, he has drawn courage from the sight of voters who risk and sometimes even lose their lives simply to exercise their right to vote. Mr Dixon said he watched voters in Namibia tramp through 20 kilometres of bush to queue in the blistering sun for hours.

'I think we take our democracy for granted in Britain,' he said. 'It's something we long ago fought for and obtained.'

David Monks, Solace's election expert and chief executive of North Warwickshire District concurred: 'Compared to other countries, we do not have people standing outside the booth with rifles. I think we should be proud of our system. People don't abuse it 99 per cent of the time - although you always get some idiot who wants to impersonate someone else, and those who vote for Manchester United. The system is not perfect. But we don't have corruption and bribery.'

Mr Monks, a returning officer, said the system works because 'there is an element of trust between the people who vote, the people running the system and in the system itself' but added that most underrate what goes into an election. 'People think it's dead easy. You just get a few people into a hall and shout the results. There is a lot more to it than that. It is a question of learning practice and procedure.'

Returning officers are held responsible for the conduct of the election and have to pay for re-runs - through insurance claims. They receive from the Home Office what amounts to an honorarium. Presiding officer staff earn pounds 103.50 a day; polling clerks get pounds 65.45 for what may be a 15-hour day. Local elections pay less and the money comes from local taxes. The average figure for staff costs conducting the count at a general election is pounds 1,500 per constituency.

Eric Syddique, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: 'We get our public elections on the cheap.' He praised the honesty and integrity of the officials who run them, but said people do not appreciate the democratic rights won for them by their forefathers.

'Change is in the wind,' he said, referring to four Home Office working parties set up to look at improvements. (Three have already reported; the fourth, studying the payment of election officers, has been deadlocked.) Indications are, however, that only minor amendments will be made, such as extending postal and proxy voting qualifying times.

John Bambrook, chairman of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said his group would like to see a more radical approach to improving elections and encouraging voters.

The association wants rolling registrars to be introduced instead of the snapshot now taken each year on 10 October. This would enfranchise those who lose voting rights where they live simply because they have moved house after that date. The association also favours early voting, extended polling days and better education of school children on their democratic rights.

Most important, the association supports a proposal put forward by the all-party Hansard Society for creation of an independent electoral commission for Britain.

Hansard chairman David Butler of Nuffield College, Oxford, said such a move would be 'a major reform' - but he suggested that it may be about time we borrowed back an idea that has been so successfully implemented by so many of Britain's former colonies who were 'starting from scratch'.

(Photographs omitted)