Nemo me impune lacessit - at least, not without a pencil

by Scribble Monboddo

Here in Britain we're voting in one of our increasingly frequent general elections - and yes, there's a stationery story behind all the blether. Because where some other countries use paper-punch systems susceptible to 'hanging chads' (remember them?) or computer voting at risk of hacking attacks, our bulletproof approach is to use the best available technology. Yes, I mean the humble pencil. We forget, sometimes, that pencils really are the product of all sorts of complex technological processes, but they really are. Their role in the voting process, too, is almost part of a ritual; walk along to the polling station, take the form into a plywood booth, and reach for a stubby little HB on a string. Old school? Sure. But it works.

Every once in a while, a rumour goes around that voters should take their own writing equipment with them. It's not true, as I'll explain in a moment, but if you do want to take your own kit, go for a simple HB pencil and nothing more. I'll mention one of those too, very soon.

Now, I'm a bit of a politics geek amongst other things, and a couple of elections ago I volunteered to observe the counting process which goes on after the polls close. It was a long night in a draughty hall and I'm in no hurry to do it again in the winter, but I can recommend the experience for the curious. All of the rest of the system uses reliable nineteenth-century technology too; the papers are sorted and counted by hand, and there's no digital element at all. In fact, the whole thing could be done by candle-light, if necessary. Every ballot paper with a less than clear mark is assessed by impartial counters as well as representatives of the candidates, and the whole process is taken very seriously. The good news for pencil users is that the good old HB tip makes a mark which won't smudge, is legible in any light conditions and - crucially - cannot be fully erased. Ink really would not be an improvement, as it could so easily smudge as the ballot paper is folded, and one's vote may end up counted as a 'spoiled paper'. So, the best advice for anyone popping in to the polling station is to use the pencil provided; it's not so often you get to borrow HM Government's official graphite!

If, regardless, you really want to take your own pencil, any of the cracking HB sticks that Nero purveys will do the job. As it happens, I've just been testing one that isn't yet up on the site for sale but hopefully will be in the new year, from the Arctic notebook wizards Norderly. It looks the part, writes nicely and of course I fully endorse its candidacy for joining your pencil party. But pop out and do your democratic duty first...