Page last updated at 09:59 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 10:59 UK

What can you NOT do in a polling station?

Woman emerges from polling station
Palaces of democracy are everywhere today

As millions of Britons converge on the local primary school or village hall to cast their votes, former polling clerk Tom de Castella explains what you can and can't do in a polling station.

At 0700 BST on Thursday, schools and village halls across the land morphed into palaces of democracy.

Election masks
To oil the wheels of election night, the Magazine has prepared a downloadable election party pack

A general election is a special event in the life of the nation. And Nigel Tonkin, Westminster Council's head of administrative services, who has been organising elections in London for 35 years, says that first-time voters shouldn't be intimidated.

"Don't be put off by something that's unknown. The staff will be welcoming and try to make the process as straightforward as possible."

But voting is a serious business. So just what can and can't you do in a polling station?

CAN I BRING MY PETS WITH ME TO VOTE?

Dogs may not yet be entitled to vote but they are allowed to come and watch as long as they don't disrupt the vote. According to previous guidance issued by the Electoral Commission, dogs must be in an "accompanying" role rather than "free-range".

In cases where a voter has two or more dogs and will struggle to control them while casting their ballot, polling station staff may hold the dogs' leads. Rural constituencies might have cases of voters riding to the polling station. In such cases, horses and ponies should be tethered up outside. There is no guidance on other animals such as rabbits, ferrets or pot-bellied pigs, so any decision will be at the discretion of presiding officers.

CAN I WEAR POLITICAL CLOTHING?

"We wouldn't want people coming in with overt political clothing," says Mr Tonkin. However it is all about context. "There's a candidate standing in Westminster as a pirate. And if he comes in to vote in a pirate costume as is likely, we won't turn him away. The same goes for any supporters coming to vote as pirates."

But if there were Labour or Tory voters dressed in party T-shirts and hats that would be a different matter, he says.

"If you're wearing party insignia and emblems we wouldn't like that."

Tesco shopper in pyjamas
Pyjamas are banned at Tesco, but OK for voting

So what about people coming in wearing T-shirts of the left-wing firebrand Che Guevara? Surely, these are political, too?

"Che Guevara isn't a problem. Unless, of course, he was standing in the ward," he says. It all boils down to one simple rule.

"It's about not intimidating voters about who they should support."

Recently a branch of Tesco banned customers from shopping in pyjamas. Would polling staff take a similar hard line against inappropriate clothing?

"Pyjamas are fine, provided they're not indecent. And so is a builder who's stripped to the waist. We want people to vote, we don't want to turn people away," he says. But a line does have to be drawn somewhere, he says. "A topless woman wouldn't be appropriate as voters might get distracted."

CAN I COVER MY FACE WITH A HOODIE OR SOMETHING ELSE?

Yes. It's true that polling station staff are on the lookout for people trying to vote twice by impersonating someone else on the register. But Rob Connelly, head of electoral services in Birmingham City Council, says that there's no requirement for voters to show their face. "If you can't see someone's face we can ask them the statutory questions - things like their name and address. We wouldn't stop someone voting if they're wearing a hoodie or a burka."

I'VE BEEN IN THE PUB AND FEEL DRUNK. CAN I VOTE?

Yes. Polling station staff cannot refuse a voter simply because they are drunk or under the influence of drugs. However, if the presiding officer suspects you are incapable of voting you will be asked a series of questions to determine whether you are up to the task of casting your ballot. If the voter cannot answer satisfactorily they will be told to come back when they've sobered up.

CAN I WEAR A GIANT ROSETTE?

No. The only people permitted to wear a rosette are the candidates and their polling agents. The rosette must be plain and not refer to the candidate or bear a slogan. Neither can they be too big.

While the Electoral Commission doesn't specify dimensions at this election, previous guidance set out a maximum width of "three to four inches". It seems the authorities are worried that a really big rosette might cause people to change their minds about whom to vote for.

CAN I TALK WITH MY SPOUSE ABOUT THE CANDIDATES?

No. Political discussion is banned inside the polling station. Polling station staff will intervene if people are heard to be discussing the merits of different candidates or parties - it may unsettle other voters. Neither can one ask someone whom they are voting for as this will compromise the secrecy of the poll. If you want to debate the pros and cons of a certain candidate you must do so outside. Neither can people distribute party leaflets or other literature in the polling station. Anyone seen doing so will be asked to take them outside.

I'M A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL FAMILY. CAN I VOTE?

This depends on whether you're a minor or major royal. "The Queen lives in the constituency of Westminster but she isn't on our electoral register," Mr Tonkin says. "As head of state, she is part of the institution of Parliament so cannot vote." The same applies to close family members like Prince Charles and his sons. But "minor" royals not so closely related to the Queen may be able to vote.

CAN I PLAY MY FAVOURITE MUSIC TO INSPIRE ME?

Not if it disrupts other people. Those trying to bring in a ghetto blaster will be turned away. And if you are listening to music on headphones you'll need to remove them when addressed by polling station staff. They will want to confirm your name and other details.

If your personal music player is playing at high volume in the polling booth you'll be asked to turn it down or leave. "We don't want people blasting music around the place as it would be disruptive," Mr Tonkin says. The same attitude goes for loud conversations on mobile phones.

DO I HAVE TO MARK MY CROSS WITH A PENCIL ON A STRING?

No, the election is not being electronically counted. So if you prefer you can use a pen. You can even mark the box with a tick instead. The important thing is that your voting intention is clear.

I'VE MADE A MISTAKE. CAN I VOTE AGAIN?

Yes, providing you haven't already posted your ballot paper in the box. Return to the desk and tell staff what has happened. They'll be able to cancel your ballot paper and issue you with a new one.

I'M A BIT NERVOUS. CAN A FRIEND COME AND HELP ME?

You're welcome to enter the polling station with a friend, says Connelly. But voting is a private matter so you must be alone when you go into the polling booth and mark a cross on the ballot paper. If you have any questions about the procedure, polling station staff will be happy to help.

If on the other hand, you have a disability, or are unable to read the ballot, and cannot vote on your own, the presiding officer can help. A family member or friend could be permitted to accompany and assist.

CAN I BRING MY CHILDREN TO SHOW THEM WHAT HAPPENS?

Of course. Guidance to polling station staff asks them to be welcoming to under 18s so as not to put off the voters of tomorrow. However, in exceptional cases where there are large numbers of young people in the station, presiding officers have the power to ask them to wait outside. If someone has several young children, a member of the polling station staff can look after them while the parent or guardian votes.

CAN MY CHILD WRITE THE 'X' FOR ME?

A child is not allowed to write the X for the adult. If they're seen doing so, the ballot paper would be confiscated before it could be put in the box. It would be down to the presiding officer over whether they could cast another ballot.

CAN I WRITE A MESSAGE TO THE POLITICIANS?

Website Student Room has been debating how to make a protest against the parties by spoiling one's ballot paper. Possible messages include "[Expletive] the system!" and "No suitable candidate".

Woman casts vote
Any written messages will make the ballot paper void

These kind of deliberately spoiled ballots are part of the British political tradition, are termed "rejected votes" and are included in the overall turnout. However, those wishing to vote for one of the candidates should avoid writing comments. It may confuse the counters and lead to your vote being put in the rejected pile. And however wise or witty a comment, it's unlikely to make much impression on staff who will be frantically trying to count ballot papers.

CAN I SIGN MY BALLOT PAPER?

People do occasionally sign their ballots but these votes do not count. They are considered rejected ballots because the voter has revealed their identity and breached the rules of a secret ballot.

Signing your ballot paper was fairly common in the 19th Century when candidates would pay people to vote for them. Under that corrupt system it was possible for the candidate to check up later who had voted for them by looking for signatures, and pay out accordingly. Today, however innocent the motive, a signature renders a ballot "rejected".

WHAT IF THERE'S A FIRE?

With thousands of polling stations dotted across the country, general elections are a huge logistical undertaking. And when something does go wrong, the event can bring out the British tradition of adapting to circumstances and making the best of a bad job.

We got to the polling station, only to find the store of ballot papers had been thrown out by the cleaners the night before
Nigel Tonkin, Westminster Council

"A few years ago there was a fire in one of our polling stations," recalls Mr Connelly. "We had to evacuate everyone and move everything out. So we opened the station from the back of a car. You get the boot open and hope it's not raining."

Mr Tonkin agrees that the car is an essential part of an election supremo's armoury. "One year the school caretaker didn't open up on time so we had to start a polling station in the back of a car." You never know when disaster might strike so it's all about reacting quickly, he says.

"Another time we got to the polling station, only to find the store of ballot papers had been thrown out by the cleaners the night before. We had to hurriedly send out for replacements."



Print Sponsor



MOST POPULAR ELECTION STORIES NOW
ELECTION FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
But now comes the difficult part - making it work
Why has Eton College produced 18 British PMs?
Frantic talks on who will form the next government

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific