I want to abolish postal voting on demand, which was introduced in 2000 with the best of intentions. It has proved to be wide open to electoral fraud, corruption and fiddling, and is a thoroughly bad thing.
Ministers have talked about the “convenience” of voting. This is the word the Government used in the Electoral Administration Bill in 2006, when I was ploughing the same furrow. They talked about convenience and increasing turnout. Unfortunately there are unintended consequences, many of which are unavoidable.
The Electoral Commission report in August 2004, following the last European election – Delivering Democracy? The Future of Postal Voting – includes a table entitled ‘People’s priorities for voting arrangements’.
In answer to the question, “Thinking generally about elections, which one of the following would you say is most important to you when you vote?” the result was as follows:
In the over-55 age group, the proportion that thought that voting being either convenient or easy to use was important was down to a combined figure of 24%.
I guess that a similar survey would now be more biased towards voting being private and not open to fraud, as a result of the press publicity about the scandals that have occurred—notably the case in Birmingham, various cases in East Lancashire and
the recent case in Slough from the 2007 local elections.
In Slough, a Tory Councillor was jailed for 3½ years for registering ghost electors and then sending in applications for postal votes for them, which were then used. The prosecuting counsel Charles Miskin told the court on Friday the action of the
convicted vote-riggers was like a virus that needed to be eradicated.
He was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying:
This week the newspapers are full of what has been called the swine fever pandemic, but there has been another epidemic that has been working its way across the United Kingdom in recent years. Not of course a threat to life and limb but one that attacks, affects, and corrodes the roots of our democracy.”
The 1872 Ballot Act was passed to abolish the fraud and bribery before then when votes were open and people knew how they were cast. If you don’t know how someone has voted, all the bribery or intimidation in the world will not work because
people can say, “Yes, we have done what you told us to do”. In the privacy of the polling booths, people can do what they want. Postal votes destroy this vital safeguard.
Last year’s Rowntree Reform Trust report The Purity of Elections quoted Salma Yaqoob, a Respect councillor in Birmingham, talking about votes being stolen from
women in Asian families:
Postal votes are filled out in the ‘privacy’ of one’s own home. But it is not private when family members, candidates or supporters, can influence subtly or otherwise, the way you complete your vote. A secret ballot means that loyalties to families and friends can be maintained in public, but political arguments can still win out in the real privacy of the voting booth.”
Those are exactly the same arguments that Mr Gladstone made in 1872 in relation to bribery.
It’s time to abolish postal voting on demand.
* Lord (Tony) Greaves is the Lib Dems’ Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government in the House of Lords. This is an edited version of part of what he said in the Lords Grand Committee on the Political Parties and Elections Bill (13 May 2009.