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When I last voted in a national election (in Germany, in case it matters) I observed that the election workers (the people who checked my documents, gave me my ballot paper, etc) would keep the slot of the ballot box covered with a sheet of paper until a voter was ready to cast their ballot. Then they would briefly remove the paper, let the voter put their ballot in the ballot box, and then cover the ballot box up again.

Why are they covering up the slot on the ballot box? Presumably it's to ensure that only completed ballots are put in the box - but I can't imagine what else they could fear could end up in the ballot box, it's not like the polling station was swarmed by an angry mob demanding to stuff their telephone bills into the ballot box?

I've seen this happen a number of times on TV, in various places around the world (usually as part of news coverage of an election). Sometimes the election worker uses paper to cover up the slot, other times they push a button on the ballot box to physically open the slot.

  • 1
    to avoid double or triple voting ( aka, inserting more than one ballot). – CptEric Sep 28 '15 at 7:16
  • and still with that, it's the third time in 3 elections that my local Popular Party candidate votes twice (introducing the ballot on the wrong ballot box before recieving the voting table's president permission at the moment of the photography ) and then going to her voting spot to vote again. – CptEric Sep 28 '15 at 7:18
  • @CptEric: what do you mean? To prevent a person inserting more than one ballot paper into the box at once? Or to prevent a person voting repeatedly (at the same or different polling stations)? – Lightsider Sep 28 '15 at 7:23
  • both. if it's covered, then it's less possible ( not impossible if you're a politician followed by lots of cameras that distract the table responsibles) that someone could slip a ballot without permission, or slip two ballots. – CptEric Sep 28 '15 at 8:41
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This is a measure to prevent people from putting a ballot paper into the box when they didn't properly follow the procedure. In Germany, the voting procedure is explained in §56 of the Bundeswahlordnung.

This paragraph, for example, mandates that every voter MUST fill out the ballot paper in the polling booth and MUST fold it in a way that it is impossible to see how they voted before leaving the cabin.

When the voter does not follow these instructions, they need to repeat their vote. The election helper who puts the piece of paper over the ballot box is responsible for monitoring compliance to this and prevent non-compliant voters from putting their ballot paper into the box. Without them, the voter could put that "dirty" vote into the box before an election helper stops them. The vote could then no longer be separated from the legit ones.

Other democratic countries have similar voting procedures with similar election helper instructions.


Further reading: Why is this paragraph important?

Not just allowing but mandating secrecy of voting prevents people from selling their votes. Imagine I would offer you 100€ when you vote my party. How would I know you really did and didn't just pretend to to get the money? The only way would be when I would request from you that you show me your vote before throwing it into the box. By explicitly forbidding you to do this, the election process prevents this business model from working.

In Germany there is also a historical component to this: In the (not very) democratic republic of east-germany (GDR), it was theoretically possible but not mandatory to vote in secret. But filling out your ballot paper in public was socially expected, as it showed your support for the Socialist Unity Party (or rather not filling it out but putting it into the election box blank, as this counted as a vote for the SED). People who made use of the polling booth were suspected of not supporting the SED regime.

  • You go to great length to explain something that does not need to be explained, namely some German specificity that does not exist. It's not specifically about §56 or the GDR, something similar exists in many countries, in many cases for a longer time than in Germany, which became fully democratic relatively recently. – Relaxed Sep 28 '15 at 15:31
  • Also note that a folded or otherwise marked ballot can land in the ballot box without compromising the vote, it can easily be invalidated after the fact (that's what the electoral law provides, e.g. in France). But it's much more difficult to find a normal-looking ballot from someone who wasn't entitled to vote. – Relaxed Sep 28 '15 at 15:38
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It's to ensure the person votes at the right time, there is no ambiguity about the fact that she voted and that the procedure has generally been followed. In particular, someone could be tempted to put the ballot in the box before their name has been found in the electoral roll or the officials are ready to record the fact that she voted.

You don't need to imagine an angry mob, even two or three people queuing at once and eager to vote could easily outpace the officials flipping through the electoral roll.

It is pretty indeed common, sometimes there is also a kind of lever built in the ballot box for this function.

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From personal experience, when people are queuing to vote, they get nervous and tend to make mistakes.

Also, the people responsible for the voting station also tend to make mistakes due to mechanic and repetitive work they are doing. Also, the task they do is not something they do everyday, so they are not used to it.

The two mistakes that are the most common are:

  1. Trying to introduce the ballot before allowed to do so (i.e. after checking the ID card and the list of voters).
  2. Trying to introduce something else that is not a ballot (ID cards, election card information, any other paper-y thing they have in their hands when casting the vote: the sheet of paper is the quickest way to say "hey, don't put that in the ballot box!" ).

So the sheet of paper acts as a cheap and effective way to avoid the majority of these mistakes.

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