Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Thursday, 15 April 2010 01:16 UK

Why 'X' does not always mark the spot

By Kevin Young
Political reporter, BBC News

Election 2010: Your vote's journey

Everybody knows that "X" marks the spot, whether it comes to locating buried treasure, winning spot-the-ball competitions or casting a vote on polling day.

But there are occasions when election ballot papers may still be declared valid, even when something other than a cross has been placed in the box next to a candidate's name, it has emerged.

The Electoral Commission, the organisation which "sets the standards for running elections in the UK", strongly advises voters should always write an "X" and nothing else.

But papers marked with anything other than a cross "should not be rejected" if "the voter's intention is clear", the commission's guidance to returning officers states.

The decision on whether a paper containing another marking is valid or spoilt will lie with the returning officers in the 650 constituencies being contested around the UK on 6 May.

A ballot paper
What is clearly prohibited is putting anything on the ballot paper that would identify the voter, or which contains some sort of message to the candidates
Professor Wyn Grant
University of Warwick

The commission advises that no ballot paper can include any markings to identify the person who has voted.

There must also be no doubt as to which candidate is being backed, and no more than one mark on the page.

However, as long as this is the case, the paper should not necessarily be rejected if the vote is marked "otherwise by means of a cross", the commission says.

It stresses this advice is intended "as a guide only", and it is up to returning officers to consider each case, then apply electoral law and decide whether a ballot paper is valid or spoilt.

"While returning officers have some discretion when it comes to interpreting voters' intentions on ballot papers, the only way for voters to be sure that their vote will be counted is to put a single 'X' in the box next to the name of the candidate who has their support," the commission added in a statement.

"Anything else runs the risk of not being counted, and considered a spoiled ballot paper."

Election-night counts

One of the most common errors on ballot papers is when voters "put a tick on ballot papers instead of a cross", said Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

"Then I think it really falls within the discretion of the returning officer to discuss that with candidates.

"What is clearly prohibited is putting anything on the ballot paper that would identify the voter, or which contains some sort of message to the candidates."

A ballot box
There will be 650 counts around the UK after polls close on 6 May

Counting for the general election can begin at any time after polling stations close at 2200 BST on 6 May, but precisely when all 650 seats will have been declared remains unclear at present.

There were reports that as many as a quarter of councils were considering abandoning the Thursday-night count in favour of one on Friday, as happened with the London mayoral elections in 2008, because of changes to postal-voting rules and higher staffing costs.

In February, however, MPs backed moves which would force counts to start within four hours of close of polls, apart from in "exceptional circumstances".

But whatever time the counts begin, it is clear that they will be completed far more quickly if voters stick to the tried and trusted method, by deploying an "X" - and nothing else - in the box.



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