In the UK the nearest most of us get to the democratic process is using a thick black pencil to put a cross next to a candidate's name on a ballot slip once every few years.
On your way into the polling centre you may be confronted by people from various parties asking for your voting number. Did you ever wonder why?
Allocation of Voter Numbers
In the UK everyone lives in an polling district which is a subdivision of an electoral ward. Electoral wards are subdivisions of constituencies, which in turn may be subdivisions of boroughs or counties.
The ward is an area which has been marked out on a map (probably after much wrangling and political discussion) and which, at the local government level, will be represented by one or more ward councillors. The local authority will have given each of the polling districts within a ward a unique identifier. This may be in the form of two letters followed by a number e.g. UA1.
The elections office in the local authority will allocate numbers to voters - starting at 1 for the first voter in each of the polling districts. There is some discretion in this and it may be that the numbers, unlike road numbering, can be consecutive in neighbouring houses.
So Miranda Farnsbarnes at 1 Acacia Avenue might be UA0001, while Septimus Farnsbarnes of the same address will be UA0002. With no more voters in the household Mr Patel, next door at number 3, gets to be UA0003 with his wife and sons being UA0004, 5 and 6 and so on down the road.
During the run-up to the election the candidates are allowed a copy of the electoral register relating to the area where they are standing. This gives the voting number, name and address of every voter in the area. It also gives the date of birth of people who are soon to be 18, so that when an election is called it can be ascertained whether they are old enough or not.
In years gone by the major parties cut these lists up and stuck them onto cards. The cards have pre-printed columns with headings such as 'For', 'Against', 'Don't know' and 'Member' and possibly some other locally-relevant heading. The cards are then given to willing party members who will knock on doors and ask people how they intend to vote. These willing people are called canvassers.
The answer the canvasser receives leads them to tick one or more of the columns. So if someone says they would rather poke their own eyes out than vote for your chuffing party the tick would go in the 'Against' column. If they are a supporter, other columns may include 'Poster' - which may be ticked if they agree to display a poster supporting the party.
Analysing the Canvass
Back at HQ the canvass cards are analysed (generally on computer) to show how many people are for, against and undecided. There may be a second and third canvass (if you have the resources) to fill the gaps where people weren't in on the first canvass.
Imagine your results show that you have 500 supporters while your opponents have 600. All is not lost. It's who actually votes on the day that counts.
Targeted work should be done to promote your ideas to the people who agree with your party and to the people who are unsure. The aim is not to waste time or effort on your opponents. You want them to forget there is an election coming while energising (and perhaps recruiting new-people-to-be) your supporters.
Just Before the Election
When Election Day is imminent the computer printer (this used to be typed or handwritten) churns out the street lists of your supporters only. You may have voting cards printed with your party logo and the voter's name and number on them and deliver them in the days prior to Election Day.
Early on Election Day a note is dropped into the letterboxes of the people you want to remind that they must vote.
As the polls open, the parties have their supporters sitting outside the entrance of the polling booth to take numbers. So when Mr Fudge-knuckle (voter number 1234) of 42a High Street casts his vote, the number-takers from all of the parties write it down. It is often the case that the number-takers declare a truce for the duration of voting day and pass on numbers to one another when someone mishears or there are so many people that each number-taker asks a different person.
At regular intervals a runner will collect the numbers from their number-taker and pass them back to HQ. These numbers are then entered into the computer (or read out and crossed off handwritten or typed street lists). So when 1234 is entered into the computer or read out, then providing Mr Fudge-Knuckle is a supporter, his name will be taken off the street list for High Street.
As the day goes on volunteers will take the street lists of supporters (with the names of people who have already voted removed or crossed off) and knock on the doors of people who haven't yet voted to remind them that it is voting day. This process is called 'knocking up,' which I am sure will amuse our American readers.
Of course the system is far from foolproof and some people have voted but refused to give their number. The knocker-uppers will be told by the voter - generally in no uncertain terms - that they have already been. Occasionally people will tell less than the whole truth and say they have voted even if they haven't. Either way their names are crossed off the list and this information is fed back to HQ so that later lists can be amended.
So if you can identify your voters with any degree of certainty and also get them to go out and vote on election day you may have fewer local supporters than your rivals but win the election. Cool, eh?
Anyone involved in elections over a period of time may have experienced a result that hinged on five or less votes. If you win, that's great - if you lose it's terrible. Everyone can think of one household that they might have persuaded to vote which would have changed the course of the election.
Only One Vote
Still, Election Day is not the end of it.
When people get into the polling centre they have to give their voter number (or name and address if they don't have their polling card). Their name on the electoral register has a tick put next to it to say that their vote has been used. The polling slip (the thing you put your cross on) has the individual's voting number put on it before it is marked by the voter.
If, when you go to vote you find someone has claimed to be you and your vote has been used, the officers in the polling station can issue you with a second, differently-coloured ballot paper. Notionally the original ballot paper with your number on could be sought out and disregarded and your second, coloured ballot paper would then be counted but in reality this is rarely done unless there is a very close result.
The coloured ballot papers are more often used to deal with problematic drunks who demand their right to vote - even if they don't live in the area.
The Marked Register
After the election is over the marked electoral register can be inspected. This shows who has voted (not how they voted) and of course can be used to see whether the people who said they had voted did actually go. Party members are more likely to worry about this as their non-voting in a closely-lost seat could lead to recriminations.
So that's why they ask for your number. Aren't you surprised at how much information is freely available in our transparent electoral system?