Why we use pencils to vote in elections and rules on bringing your own pen

Voters across much of the UK will go to the polls on Thursday, May 2, for the local elections. While not every council has an election in 2024, there will be 107 local authorities where councillors' seats will be up for grabs.

There are also polls across England and Wales to choose new Police and Crime Commissioners. The new Mayor of London will also be chosen, as will the London Assembly and 10 other mayors around the country. While there are no elections in Scotland or Northern Ireland this time around, there will also be a by-election to choose a new MP for Blackpool South, following the resignation of former Conservative member Scott Benton.

The results of the local elections are sure to be keenly followed, as they will be taken as a barometer of the electorate's feeling ahead of the General Election, which is likely to take place later in the year. While the elections are to decide who runs local services, the way people feel towards the goings-on at Westminster are sure to have an impact.

Every election is important and needs to be beyond reproach when it comes to the potential for fraud. You might wonder, then, why we traditionally mark our 'X' in the box using a pencil.

Pencils, usually attached to a string inside the polling booth, have always been supplied in polling stations for local elections, general elections and referenda. But the Electoral Commission (EC) was once forced to explain why when the issue was raised by a concerned voter.

Kenneth Priestly wrote to the commission to say: "It has come to my attention that pencils have been used in polling stations, the mark is erasable. Given this could give rise to fraud, why don't you use and supply black pens?"

During the General Election campaign in 2017, social media was flooded with warnings that pencil marks could be rubbed out, leading to concerns over voting fraud. The EC's response stated that the use of a pen or pencil when completing the ballot paper is not specified in legislation, but "in the UK, pencils are traditionally used for the purposes of marking ballot papers and are made available inside polling stations for voters to use".

It argued that the use of pencils does not itself increase the likelihood of electoral fraud, adding that: "While pencil marks can be rubbed out, similarly, pen marks can be crossed out." There are also practical reasons pencils are supplied, including that they won't run out of ink, they're cheaper than pens and they are less likely to cause smudges, which could render a ballot paper spoiled.

The commission added that the integrity of the election process is maintained from the point that a voter marks their ballot paper to the declaration of the result. Safeguards, including the requirement for seals to be attached to the black ballot boxes at the close of the polls, have been written into legislation.

Despite all of this, it is perfectly acceptable for a voter to bring their own pen to mark their ballot paper.