Under the Maastricht Treaty EU citizens can vote in the European Parliament elections in the EU country in which they are resident. This means that we can vote in Spain’s elections a week on Sunday. Jane will be away that weekend so she will vote by post.
The regulations for applying for a postal vote are available on the internet. The process starts with a visit to a post office at least ten days before the election; she went this morning and on showing her residence (ID) card she was given a form to fill in. She had to sign it in the presence of the PO clerk, who checked that the signature on the form matched what was on the card. Spanish citizens would present their national ID card. There is a procedure for illiterates. The internet site clearly states that a driving licence or passport is acceptable if it has a photo, even if the document is out of date. As a result of this process, a registered letter has been sent with Jane’s application for a postal vote to the local election authorities. One day next week she will receive a registered letter with the relevant papers; she will have to receive this letter personally from the postperson who delivers it. She will then place her ballot paper (i.e. the list for her preferred party) in an envelope and send it, by registered post again, to the returning officer at the polling station. Postal votes must be sent at least three days before polling day and the Post Office delivers them to the polling station at 09.00. Any others that come in before 20.00 are also delivered; after that they are sent to the local Electoral Commission for later counting. In the 2004 general election 559,730 applications for postal votes were made, of which 6,170 were refused. Once you have made an application for a postal vote it is impossible for you to vote in person. Also, votes must be cast on election day itself, so if you die between sending off your postal vote and the day of the election, your vote won’t be valid.
I will be here, so I will vote in person. This means that I will go to the polling station with my poll card (useful but not compulsory) and identify myself as described above. I will have taken a printed list for my preferred party and put it in an official envelope. In the past I then handed this envelope to the person in charge of the table in the polling station that takes my votes and he or she would put it in the box. It has now been decided that after thirty years of democracy people can be expected to know how to put an envelope in the box for themselves. Any envelope that is empty is counted as a blank vote (i.e. a vote for ‘none of the above’) and any that contains more than one paper is ignored. Note that this means that there is no need for security about blank ballot papers; in fact, ballot papers are not marked by the voter because each party has a separate paper with its list, colour coded for easy counting. Parties send out official lists and envelopes with their election literature and many people go to vote with their paper already in the envelope ready to put in the box. This system also means that the vote is totally anonymous, unlike the British system of keeping a numbered counterfoil of each ballot paper which is referenced to each voter.
The ballot box itself is transparent, which allows people to check that it does not mysteriously fill up over lunchtime but also symbolises the transparency of the democratic process. The people running the polling stations are members of the public selected for the task, like jury service in the UK. You can get out of it in exchange for an administrative fine. People are horrified at the idea of having public employees running elections. Each table has a person responsible for it and a few scrutineers from the parties. The votes are counted in the polling stations and the results are phoned through to the Interior Ministry, which manages the count for national elections; regional or municipal authorities run their own. Voting finishes at 20.00; the first results come in at about 22.00 and by midnight it’s all pretty well over. Occasionally there will be disputed papers or late papers from postal or overseas votes, which hold up the count; the D’Hondt method is complicated and sometimes it can be a few days or even a week before the final result is known if one seat hangs on a handful of votes. Because the Canary Islands are one hour behind the rest of Spain, TV election programmes cannot be shown there until their polling stations have closed.
British-style canvassing is unknown in Spain, people do not display posters in their living-room windows and, while there are exit polls, the parties do not collect details of people voting – and would get very short shrift from just about everybody involved if they did. The campaign will end on the Friday evening, the day before polling day being a day for reflection when no electioneering is allowed.
Update Thursday 4 June: On Tuesday morning the doorbell rang and a registered letter from the election authorities was delivered for Jane. Normally when you receive registered mail you just sign for it and put your ID number on the form and that’s that; you can receive mail on behalf of other people. In this case she had to show her ID card and the postwoman herself copied the number onto the receipt. As expected, the envelope contained a copy of each list for the elections (36 of them, I think she said) and two envelopes. She put her selected list in the same sort of envelope that is used in the polling station (as above) and then put that in another envelope that was addressed to the returning officer of her polling station. Later that morning I took the envelope to the post office and sent it by registered post, free of charge. I was able to do that because I got a receipt that I gave to her. OK she trusts me, but there is still a receipt that the voter can ask for if someone else posts the vote, thus maintaining the chain of security.
If she had not been available when the envelope arrived, she would have had to go to the post office to collect it in person.