Opinion: The best type of electoral reform

As a young councillor in Manchester in 1999, I was often suspicious of a postal vote system that allowed people, who couldn’t make it to the ballot box to be able to vote by post.  It’s not that I wanted to curtail anyone’s democratic rights – it was just that I wanted to ensure the system was safe from electoral fraud.

Since 2001, here in the UK – you can vote by post without giving a reason.  ‘Bringing the ballot box to your doorstep’, argued some, ‘Putting the convenience back into politics’, said others.  Now, I’ve no problem with the elderly nor the disabled having their vote delivered to them.  After all, they have every right to be involved in our democracy.  A ballot paper delivered through your letter box however needs to be returned to a post box – so it doesn’t quite make sense.  An easy journey there – a difficult expedition back.

Postal Voting ‘on-demand’ is the biggest threat to a democratic Britain for generations.  We’ve seen stories of alleged postal vote fraud on a massive scale.  There have apparently been warehouses set up to fill them in, up to 10 people supposedly living in 2 or 3 bedroom flats and police investigations that have proved inconclusive.

Yes, some people have been caught red handed – look at the case of the ‘Birmingham 3′ in 2005.  They described their guilty verdicts as… wait for it, “A dark day for democracy” – but whose democracy?  Senior judge Richard Mawrey QC proclaimed that it would disgrace a “banana republic”.  In 2010, 5 people were jailed in an ultimately failed attempt to get their candidate elected in Bradford West.

So what has happened since?  Well, err… nothing.  This is despite allegations flying around left, right and centre. Administrations like the one in Tower Hamlets amongst others are dogged by suspicions of electoral fraud. Dead people voting, unfeasibly large households are not uncommon – especially in our urban areas.

Sadly, we’ve not been able to change the electoral system.  A huge defeat to change to a fairer voting system, a failure to reform the undemocratic House of Lords and boundary changes not being implemented.

So what is the best type of electoral reform?  An end to the ‘free for all’ postal voting system would be a good start.  YES, if you are not well enough to get to a polling station… NO – if you can’t be bothered to wander down to your local polling booth between 7am and 10pm on Polling Day!

* Dave Hennigan is a Lib Dem member in Macclesfield (formerly Levenshulme)

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18 Comments

  • Richard Shaw 11th Jul '13 - 9:41am

    The solution is to improve the systems and security around postal voting, for example, giving people written confirmations of applying for postal ballots so that people know if others have signed up in their name, etc. Only when you have exhausted all possible and practical ways of improving the system should we contemplate abolishing it altogether. People commit credit card or insurance fraud – should we abolish credit cards or insurance? No, we improve the systems around them to combat fraud.

    Postal voting is a boon for our democracy. It’s very convenient for voters (especially those on holiday, away on business, working unsocial hours, etc. and indeed campaigners like myself who can then spend more time getting people out to vote ;) ) and increases the likelihood of them participating in democracy, especially in ‘less important’ local authority elections. You final paragraph is unfortunate as it just makes your post a long-winded way of calling postal voters lazy.

  • Simon McGrath 11th Jul '13 - 9:42am

    Is there a consoldiated list anywhere of people convicted of electoral fraud, which would enable us to settle the issue of whether it is an urban problem or not?

  • With the UK having a near continuous decline in turnout at elections, suggesting that law on postal voting returns to its pre-2000 state smacks of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Overall turnout at the 2010 UK general election was 65.1% – the third lowest total since 1918. Turnout at the ballot box was just 60%. In contrast, turnout among postal voters was 83.2% – almost 20% percentage points higher. As noted, cases of voter fraud among postal votes are extremely rare. This is true not just of the UK but of other places that use postal votes too. In the U.S. state of Oregon, which only allows voting by post, there have been 15m ballots cast since 2000 and only 9 prosecutions for voter fraud. Oregon’s turnout is also 8.5% about the U.S. average. Clearly the electorate is more motivated to vote when it is made easier for them to do so. Not only that, but to use unproven allegations of mass voter fraud to try and prevent people from voting is dog-whistle politics at best and should be avoided at all costs. We should be trying to make it easier for people to engage in democracy and have their say, not harder. Restricting postal voting would have exactly the opposite effect and would disenfranchise millions of voters.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Jul '13 - 10:06am

    There have been a relatively small number of prosecutions for postal voter fraud and the rules were changes a few years ago so that anyone applying has to give their date of birth and signature. The system is far more robust as a result.

    In my area the main groups of people who have permanent postal votes are a) very elderly people, b) people who work or study away from home a lot and c) commuters. There are then those who take out temporary ones for a particualr election if they are going to be away.

    In my experience many of our supporters who don’t end up voting are commuters who didn’t get back in time, or who got back from work late and tired out. I encourage them to take out postal votes.

    Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with the current system as long as it is policed. We should play our part in that – if we spot ten people registered for postal votes in one small terraced house we should raise the alarm.

  • When I have worked on election observation missions abroad people are stunned when I tell them that you can turn up to vote in the UK without any ID being necessary at all – yet here we never really discuss the issue at all. We must be about the only country that allows people to vote without showing any ID and yet we get very concerned about the security of a postal vote!

  • I agree. Liberals believe in active citizenship. Postal voting for everyone who wants it damages this ethos.

  • David Wilkinson 11th Jul '13 - 11:29am

    To scrap the current postal voting system because of a few cases of fraud is daft, we need to tighten the system up on mutli applications, more checks signatures etc. The small of fraud against the total of votes cast since the easy postal voting came into effect shows it is a small problems.
    Do we ban other items where fraud is committed.
    Also I done knocking up on days like today with the sun shining down and it can be hard work to get people moved from the comfort of their barbecues and cold beer.

  • Peter Davies 11th Jul '13 - 12:36pm

    The real threat from postal voting is not the blatant organised fraud but coercion within households. A postal vote can never be guaranteed secret. In households with a dominant ‘head of household’ they effectively get several votes while the rest of their household is disenfranchised. In some areas this can produce a strong gender and age bias in the electorate.

  • It would be interesting to actually see if there is any research on how many postal voters aren’t having there vote counted because of issues with their personal identifiers.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Jul '13 - 12:17am

    What Peter Davies said. I’ve always thought that was the real problem with postal voting — not organised fraud (which is probably minimal), but the effective abolition of the secret ballot.

  • William Jones 12th Jul '13 - 7:46am

    Sorry, Dave.

    I don’t agree, surely the plan should be to improve the postal vote system with a bit of practical thinking. We need to encourage people to come out to vote – even though it might not be convenient for our own party.

  • T

  • Simon McGrath 12th Jul '13 - 2:10pm

    There has been a study of where electoral fraud happens.
    “Fifteen areas where there has been a history of cases of alleged fraud are: Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Burnley, Calderdale, Coventry, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Oldham, Pendle, Peterborough, Slough, Tower Hamlets, Walsall, and Woking. ”
    @Lester Holloway will you be withdrawing your comment that:
    “Voting fraud, whether alleged or proven, is far from limited to “urban areas.” Indeed at least as many convictions are not from these areas”
    http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14250%3Awatchdog-consults-on-reforms-amid-concerns-over-electoral-fraud&catid=59&Itemid=27

  • Before the introduction of postal voting available to all, there were a lot of ways of getting postal votes for people involving ‘tame’ medical staff to sign the forms, claims of business commitments which might or might not apply to that particular polling day, councillors of the ruling party getting one through pressure on staff and blatant pleas to electoral staff about ‘ being busy on the day’ and so on. The lists were never revisited so once a postal voter always a postal voter. Multiple voting using stolen poll cards and voting by the dead was not unheard of either!

    The current system, when backed up with individual registration ( and hence to choice of whether to ask for a postal vote on the form ) and current methods of identification have made the system much more secure.

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