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Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Thursday, 8 April 2010 17:45 UK
Election 2010: South Yorkshire

By Stephanie Barnard
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

John Tomlinson unlocks the secure red door
John Tomlinson unlocks the secure red door

Where are ballot boxes stored when there isn't an election? And who sharpens the pencils so voters can mark their X in the box? BBC Sheffield went to Sheffield's Town Hall to take a look behind the scenes…

The Town Hall on Pinstone Street houses many events from Mayoral functions to civil partnership ceremonies. But if you go behind the scenes and take the staircase underground you will find a corridor tiled top to tail, and a red door.

Behind that red door is a cupboard containing essential election kit - the kit that ensures our elections take place, the kit that rigs the election.

John Tomlinson is the Electoral Services Manager and taking care of business for the Sheffield local elections and the General Election for 2010.

An array of ballot boxes, plastic boxes and various stationery equipment is bursting in this small cupboard. Boxes are packed high to the ceiling, metal cages, black bags labelled with district names, some might even call this room chaos?

"It is definitely organised chaos. My team know where everything is now," said John Tomlinson.

Over the years ballot boxes have changed, especially in Sheffield. The once heavy metal ballot boxes were removed around 10 years ago [2000] and replaced with a more user friendly box.

John Tomlinson explains how they work: "The ballot boxes are collapsible and made of vinyl, Velcro and zips. The zip seal is then pushed in and sealed with a security tag. They are much lighter for people to carry and transport.

"One of the advantages of these new ballot boxes is that there are no more sharp corners to rip our clothes. I went through about three pairs of trousers before we got the new ballot boxes."

As well as collapsible ballot boxes, many polling booths now operate in the same way. It may seem that the Town Hall is obsessed with making everything smaller and flat-pack but this is simply down to cost. Storage is no longer an expense that they have to worry about.

Local elections take place most years and the team at Sheffield Town Hall are constantly working on the forthcoming vote. So what do the team do in-between elections taking place? "Planning an election takes around a year, so after one election has taken place we go on to planning the next one," said John Tomlinson.

Security tags used to seal ballot boxes on polling day
Security tags used to seal ballot boxes on polling day

"We do a lot of work identifying better places for polling stations. This year for example we've tried to make it easier for people to get to their nearest polling station. The most unusual place we have so far is a community bus that we are using as a polling station at Morrison's car park in Halfway, which will obviously remain static on the day."

"We've used all sorts of places as a polling station, including rooms in pubs, churches, school rooms and libraries."

The plastic boxes storing stationery and equipment are as transparent as the forthcoming election. Everything can be seen - a colourful array of pencil sharpeners to pencils 10cm long. But who sharpens the pencils used to put that all important X in the box?

"When we get new starters at the Electoral Services Office we always tell them that their job is to sharpen all the pencils. It is the old joke of telling them to find a long weight."

Pencil sharpeners
Pencil sharpening experience is essential when working in the Electoral Services Office

On Election Day, 6th May 2010 the stationery and equipment is sent to the polling station and the presiding officers ensure the pencils are sharp and kept sharp. Do not underestimate the power of stationery.

"Basic stationery is essential. We make sure that all presiding officers have everything they need on the day," said John Tomlinson.

Rigging the election in Sheffield


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