Safe custody of ballot papers
There is a rigorous process to ensure security of the vote and voting secrecy at each election. There is no break in the chain of custody of ballot papers from the polling station to the counting centre, and from the counting centre to the Supreme Court where the ballot papers are retained in safe custody for 6 months and then subsequently destroyed. For transparency, the process is open to observation by candidates who are present.
Before polling commences at 8 a.m.
Ballot boxes are boxes so designated and used for the deposit of ballots cast in an election on Polling Day. These boxes are marked and are shown to be empty to candidates and their polling agents who are present before they are sealed by election officials at the polling station before the start of the polls on Polling Day.
After polls close at 8 p.m.
After the polls have closed, election officials at the polling station seal these ballot boxes containing the ballot papers which have been cast. Candidates and their polling agents who are present witness the process and may also place their own seals on the ballot boxes. The sealed ballot boxes carried by the election officials are then transported under Police escort to the counting centre. A police officer is on board the bus and stands guard over the ballot boxes throughout the journey.
Counting of votes
At the counting centre, before the ballot boxes are opened, candidates and their counting agents who are present may inspect all the boxes again to ascertain that all the boxes are accounted for, and that no others are present; and that the seals of all the ballot boxes are intact and have not been tampered with. The seals are then broken and the ballot boxes are opened, and the ballot papers therein are poured out, sorted and counted. The emptied ballot boxes are ascertained in the presence of all to be empty.
After announcement of election result
After the election result has been announced by the Returning Officer, the ballot papers and other official documents used in the election are placed into separate boxes and sealed, witnessed by candidates and their counting agents who are present, who may also place their own seals on these boxes. These boxes are then conveyed by Police escort and retained in safe custody for 6 months at the Supreme Court. After 6 months, they are destroyed by incineration, unless directed by order of the President.
Serial number on ballot papers
There are 2 significant threats in any election where voting is done using paper ballots - ballot box stuffing and
undue influence of voters' choices by impersonation.
Counterfeiting and stuffing of ballot papers into the ballot box cannot be completely ruled out. There is also the threat of "chained balloting", where the perpetrator hands a marked ballot paper to a voter to cast and buy a blank ballot paper from the voter on return from the polling station. He then marks the blank paper for the next voter from whom he can buy another blank vote. Finally, there is also the possibility of persons impersonating voters whom they know will not be casting their votes.
Having numbered ballot papers is still the best effective method to counter these threats.
The serial numbers on ballot papers enable strict accounting of all ballot papers issued and cast. That way, the number of papers found in the ballot box at the end of the election can be reconciled with the number of papers issued during the poll and the number of papers stocked before the poll began. This is a means to deal with the threat of ballot boxes being stuffed with false ballot papers.
Ballot papers have to be numbered to provide evidence if there is an allegation of impersonation, i.e. that a voter has cast his vote while pretending to be someone else. This is done if the court orders so, by matching the suspicious ballot paper with the counterfoil, on which the voter's registration number is recorded. If proven, the vote can then be subtracted from the declared election results. Without the serial number on the ballot paper, it will be difficult to establish such an allegation, and to adjust the declared election results accordingly.
While some argue that it would be better to nullify an entire election if there is any such electoral fraud, calling for a fresh election would be too costly for taxpayers and traumatic for the electorates if there are only a few allegations of impersonation.
So, is ballot secrecy compromised by reason of having a serial number?
Theoretically, it is possible for anyone with access to the ballot papers to identify who cast a particular vote. The link between the ballot paper number and the electoral register through the counterfoil does facilitate tracing from a ballot paper to a voter's identity on the register. However, ballot papers can be examined only under strict conditions, and there are safeguards that make it extremely difficult to find out how any particular voter voted.
After the ballot papers are counted, all ballot papers and their counterfoils have to be sealed in the Supreme Court vault for 6 months, after which all the ballot papers and other election documents are destroyed. During those 6 months, these documents can only be retrieved by court order. The court will issue such an order only if it is satisfied that a vote has been fraudulently cast and the result of the election may be affected as a result. Our courts have issued no such order to date.
The serial number on the ballot paper is to protect the integrity of the democratic process, and not to undermine the secrecy of the vote.
The ballot paper number is still a feature of UK parliamentary and local government elections.