Ballot papers, booths and pencils: The hidden infrastructure behind the UK’s elections

“Elections are the major thing for us.”

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Voters across England will be stepping into polling stations in 150 council areas across the country on Thursday to decide who to elect to 4,370 council seats and six separate mayoral contests. There, they’ll be picking up their ballot papers, heading to a polling booth and marking their choice with a pencil.

But who puts the pencil there? Where do the polling booths come from? And who prints the ballot papers? Whenever an election is called, a small cadre of businesses swing into action to provide the apparatus that enables us to vote – and when dealing with the future of our democracy, they’re required to be both fast and accurate.

“In a very short timescale – because we have to wait for withdrawals or changes – the green light is given and the ballot papers are printed, prepared and dispatched,” explains Martin Ruda of The TALL Group of companies, a security printing firm.

The company, which employs 135 people at three bases in Runcorn, Hinckley and County Antrim, prints bank pass books, vouchers and cheques alongside ballot papers for UK and international elections – as well as the cheques Chris Tarrant handed players on the original run of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? “The ballot paper arm is only a very small part of our total business,” says Ruda.

Contracts to print ballot papers are highly sought-after, and The TALL Group is just one of a number of companies who are responsible for printing them. The process for this year’s local elections started in November 2017, when the firm tendered for the work they do with a number of councils across the country, brokered through a small group of electoral aggregators – companies who work with local councils to handle the data on the number of ballot papers that need to be printed, as well as the candidate details to be printed on the papers. (Local councils run elections, overseen by the Electoral Commission.)

The company then received the data to print on the ballot on 9th April. The TALL Group then proof the data, and check it with the aggregator and the council within three days.

By 12 April, the 322,000 ballot papers The TALL Group have been contracted to print for this year’s local elections were signed off for print, and dispatched on 23 April to local councils up and down the country. In a normal year when the number of seats up for grabs is greater, the company can produce up to two million papers.

Unlike other nations' ballot papers which The TALL Group prints, British voting slips are pretty simple. “It’s black on white, a very simple document,” says Ruda, “but the process is governed by a depth of legislation which enables the ballot paper itself to be very simple.”

Pretty much every other part of the election day process involves a product of some sort from Shaw & Sons, a Kent-based company that has been providing election supplies to local government since 1750.

“Elections are the major thing for us,” explains Kelly Larwood, the company’s director. The firm provides products – from the iconic “Polling Station” signs (£5.84 for a 68 x 50.8cm plastic placard) to ballot boxes (£25.95 for a 50-litre container) and stubby ballot pencils (£19 per 100, with a holed rubber cap so they can be chained to the voting booth to prevent losses).

But although the company has a panoply of products, its bestseller is the presiding officer’s sundries bag, a collection of all the kit a presiding officer needs to oversee an election. Included are eight different pencils (plus a sharpener), ballpoint pens, cable ties, forms, bags, signs and more.

“We service most of the councils in some capacity,” says Larwood. The local authorities start placing their orders in January in the run-up to the election. By the week of the election Shaw’s is fairly quiet. “We have a few urgent enquiries – people suddenly realising they haven’t ordered a particular item – but most of it is done.”

Bigger purchases, such as the ballot boxes or voting screens, are bought less often. “It depends when the main funding comes through for the councils,” says Larwood. “There are things they need to buy every election, then there are things you might only buy once ever 10 years.”

The uptick in the number of plebiscites has been good news for the firm: equipment is getting used more regularly, and so needs replacing more frequently – even if turnout in general is decreasing with every election that passes. “Turnout doesn’t really affect our business,” she says. “Councils still have to provide for even one person turning up to a polling station.

“But elections have taken up quite a lot of time for the business, which is great,” she adds. “The introduction of PCC elections and the referendum, as well as last year’s snap general election, have been good.”

Given the political turmoil that has rocked the government in the last week, both companies could be called back into action sooner than they might ordinarily expect.