UK psephologists are counting pebbles

As we sit down for dinner in Australia the polls are opening in Great Britain. The UK psephologists are hard at work. Will Gordon Brown lose badly and end Labour’s run of power? Or will David Cameron resurrect the fortunes of the Conservative Party? The outsider, the Liberal Democrats are making a run on the outside with their leader, Nick Clegg. Will the British voters flock to the polls to vote away their expense-scamming politicians or stay away as they have been tending to do for the last couple of elections?

Some pundits are predicting a hung parliament; others a strong Conservative win; and there is expected to be a high voter turnout. I found a wonderful, 1989 quote from David S. Broder, currently the White House correspondent for the Washington Post:

The science of interpreting elections has a fancy name: psephology. A shorter, simpler and more accurate title for much election analysis is: fiction.

Psephology is the branch of sociology that studies elections and a practitioner is a psephologist. It comes from the Greek word psephos for pebbles. Psephism is the process of voting.

Although the word is a recent concoction, it reminds us that democracy is very old and that votes were once cast by Greeks dropping pebbles in the urns of their chosen candidates. A ballot is the Roman or Italian version – a ballot comes from pallotte, for the small balls that were similarly used as counters.

In a less positive voting system, ostracism, comes to us from ostraka, the Greek for potsherds or pottery tokens that were used when Athenians voted to exile one of their citizens for ten years.

But in a British election with their first-past-the-post system, there will be questions about whether the party that gets the most pebbles gets the most seats.

Pictured is Australian psephologist, Anthony Green.