Publishing How Many People Spoilt Their Ballot Papers

An Example Spolit paper - someone adding an extra box and trying to vote for none of the above.

Some of those voting in today’s elections might be considering spoiling their ballot papers. Not all returning officers routinely publish the number of spoilt papers along with the election results. I have received an assurance that in Cambridgeshire these figures will be published along with the rest of the results.

On the 17th of April 2009 I wrote to my local returning officer saying:

Mr Baker,

I would like to know if, how and when you are planning to publish the number of spoilt (rejected) ballot papers in each of the upcoming June 2009 elections.

Will the number of spoilt papers be published on a per-seat basis along with the number of votes for each candidate? If not, can you let me know why not?

I received a reply from Cambridgeshire County Council saying:

The number of spoilt ballots will be published on our website alongside the number of votes for each candidate for each seat. The information will be published throughout Friday 5 June, as and when results are received from the City and District Councils.

(Read the email exchange on

I think it is important the number is published as high numbers of spoilt papers might indicate problems with the voting process. The numbers might also indicate how many people didn’t vote for reasons other than apathy.

If a local returning officer doesn’t actively announce or publish counts of spoilt papers the information can be requested via a freedom of information request. The formal notice of election results also has to include this information; typically this is posted outside local authority offices. It is up to individual returning officers if they announce the number of spoilt papers when the verbally announce the results, or if they are included on council websites.

I have written to the Cambridge News requesting they consider including the number of spoilt papers in their election coverage.

A correspondent on the Andie Harper show on BBC radio Cambridgeshire earlier this week also suggested the number of spoilt papers ought be published. I wrote in to report on the assurance I had received which was broadcast on air.

5 responses to “Publishing How Many People Spoilt Their Ballot Papers”

  1. hello. can you help settle a dispute for me?
    i believe all spoilt votes are counted (albeit alongside and indistinguised from blank ones) yet somebody has told me that these votes are discarded without scrutiny. could you tell me where i can find reliable information regarding the process of dealing with spoilt ballots in the U.K? many thanks.

  2. Peter,

    This appears to be decided on an election by election basis by the returning officers.

    In practice now, as we’ve got the Freedom of Information Act there may well be more details obtainable after an election than are routinely published. Not only the number of spoilt papers, but also election results broken down by ballot box, which in some areas can be very interesting.

    When the elections came round, the initial spoilt paper numbers quoted were nonsensical and were later corrected:

  3. During the count, all the spoilt or blank papers are individually examined by the returning officer and the agents for the candidates, to agree how they should be counted – there is extensive case law about this. For example, if you draw a smiley face next to one candidate and a sad face next to all the others, that is counted. On the other hand, if you order the candidates 1, 2, 3 (as people do in Ireland) instead of putting an X, that is void for uncertainty on the grounds that you might be giving them marks out of ten. In general, if the marks on the paper make the voter’s intention clear, and don’t identify them, then the vote is counted. When I was David Howarth’s election agent in 2001, I got one vote counted where the voter had written a short essay against each candidate’s name, praising David and slagging off all the others.

    Richard would be thwarted in using FOI to obtain the results broken down by ballot box, because the votes are not counted this way. When the boxes are opened, the first stage is to count the total number of ballot papers in each box. Then at the second stage the papers from the different boxes are mixed together and separated by candidate. However if you are observing the count, then during the first stage it is possible to get an idea of the vote distribution in each box, which can indeed be very interesting (to election geeks, at least).

  4. I did respond to the first commenter, Peter, personally pointing him to the Electoral Commission.

    As for the getting the election results on a per polling station basis – this is something I have heard local Lib Dems and others talk about (perhaps based on their personal observations of counts) I suspect if the information is recorded or not will depend on local procedures at counts – some councils might have it others might not. I suspect councillors could request it be collected, as well as providing interesting information on which parts of wards voted which way (locally in Cambridge seeing how the student vote differs from the resident vote perhaps) it might reassure people that things like postal vote fraud are not occurring on a large scale.

    Personally I think there ought be much more openness – for example I would like to see election counts open to the public. I see no reason why our local Lib Dems couldn’t open this year’s election counts at the guildhall to the public.

    At the moment the only way a member of the public can get in is to register as an observer, but to do that you’ve got to commit not to make any political statements for the period of your registration – and there’s no way to register just for the day.

    • I appear to have missed that the electoral count data will be held by the returning officer and not the council and returning officers are not subject to FOI.

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