Is it illegal to campaign on election day?

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Image for post
Getting ready for another stint at a polling station

No it isn’t.

Or for a longer answer: No it isn’t, but it’s probably useful to explain just what political parties are doing on election.

Every time an election comes around, there’s normally a round of complaints about how terrible it is that so-and-so was out campaigning on election day, and they shouldn’t be allowed and besides, isn’t it illegal to campaign then anyway? Social media has amplified this to the point where I’ve heard of people from all parties organising polling day trips to help out on election day being told they’ll be reported to the police for it.

There are some regulations that affect polling day activities, but those are on the broadcast media who can’t report campaign events or polling, and are pretty much limited to reporting that election day is happening and that people — usually represented by shots of the party leaders turning up at their local polling stations — are voting. That’s also one of the big reasons why parties aren’t staging big national events on election day because they won’t get any coverage on TV for them, and there’s no point getting stuff in the next day’s newspapers.

But, while there might not be much about it on TV, election campaigning is going on right up until polling stations close at 10pm. The difference is that after weeks and months before of persuading people to vote for you and attempting to identify who will vote for you, polling day is focused almost entirely on getting the vote out.

Think of it like this: each party has a long list of the people they think are going to vote for them and they want to get as many of those people out to vote as possible. You can’t win an election on polling day, but you can definitely lose one if you don’t do enough work to get out your voters while your opponents are. Consider this example: Party A has 10,000 people it expects to vote for it, while Party B only has 8000. If voters turn out at equal rates, Party A will win, but if they can only get 60% (6000) of their voters out, while party B work harder and get 80% (6400) of theirs out, Party B win.

So on election day, they’re doing all they can to make sure their voters turn out, delivering leaflets, calling them, and knocking on their doors to remind them, and also arranging lifts to the polls for those who can’t make it. This is a very labour-intensive operation, and why parties need more activists on polling day than they do in the rest of the campaign. It’s also why you find activists sitting at polling stations asking if they can know what your electoral number is.

These are the tellers, a role that’s evolved a lot since the days before the secret ballot when they used to be the party’s representative at the polls to record how everyone voted and tally up the count. Now, though, they’re just looking to find out who has voted and it doesn’t really matter to them how anyone has voted. They gather the numbers and those numbers then end up back at the party’s local HQ where they’re used to cross people who’ve voted off the master list so time isn’t wasted disturbing people who’ve already voted. That’s all they’re doing, there’s no nefarious process by which you giving them your poll number means they can work out how you voted, rather it’s about making sure you can spend the rest of the day in peace. (By the way, these tellers are all volunteers and often people who can’t or won’t do anything else on polling day, so abusing them or treating them like they’re personally responsible for everything bad their party believes is very much an arsehole move)

If you want an illustration of what polling day is like for an activist, I wrote this account a couple of years ago about my very long election day in 1997:

The key point, though, is that it’s absolutely not illegal to campaign on election day (though you can’t do any within the precincts of a polling station) and for political activists, including the candidates, this is a long and gruelling day where they’re hoping that everything they’ve been doing for the last few weeks isn’t going to fall apart at the end. A December election means a lot of them are going to have been up and doing things for several hours before dawn, and sunset will just be the sign that there are several hours more to go. If you see someone out there working for something they believe in, please don’t add to their stress by making up a law they’re breaking.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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