Allegations emerged recently of voters in Rochdale being asked to hand postal ballots for the local elections to party representatives to complete and submit to the Returning Officer. A decade ago, this might have made the national news, but now such stories are probably too familiar to make the headlines.
While electoral fraud is not rife in the UK, the scale of the problem is almost impossible to estimate. One thing is for sure – the Rochdale case does not represent an isolated local difficulty. Based on joint reporting by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers since 2008, we can expect anywhere between 50 and 150 separate cases to be reported to local police forces in 2011. In 2010, a general election year, a total of 232 cases were reported to police in Great Britain and allegations of fraud made to four-fifths of the UK’s 52 police forces.
These figures suggest accusations of electoral fraud have become ‘normal’ – a tendency exemplified by Baroness Warsi’s recent suggestion that the outcome of the general election in at least three seats had been determined by fraud and that the Conservatives may have been denied a majority as a result.
While Baroness Warsi’s subsequently toned down her claims after being challenged to produce evidence, it is impossible to deny that fraud is present to some degree in UK elections. More than 100 people have been found guilty of electoral malpractice in the UK since 1994. The vast majority of convictions have involved postal or proxy ballots, often in conjunction with attempts to manipulate the electoral registers by registering bogus electors or adding electors to the register at empty properties.
Almost all the convictions since 1994 relate to local elections. However, following a lengthy police investigation and two re-trials, five men were eventually convicted in September 2010 for electoral fraud offences in the Bradford West constituency during the 2005 General Election. These are the first convictions relating to fraud in a UK general election for almost one hundred years.
The re-emergence of electoral fraud in the UK cannot be divorced from the recent ‘modernisation’ of the distinctly Victorian legal foundations for British elections – which had been introduced to eradicate genuinely widespread malpractice in the nineteenth century. Provisions for proxy voting were opened up in 1989, while postal ballots became available ‘on demand’ after 2000. Both measures created obvious opportunities for malpractice, particularly since applications to appear on the electoral register are largely taken on trust.
When problems began to emerge, politicians and police played catch-up. The Electoral Administration Act of 2006 introduced a requirement for applicants for postal ballot to supply ‘personal identifiers’ (their date of birth and signature), as a basis for the subsequent verification of their postal voting statement submitted at the time of voting. There have also been substantial improvements in the guidance provided by the Electoral Commission to electoral administrators and police forces and in the recording and monitoring of fraud allegations reported to the police.
A clear decline in convictions since 2007 suggests these efforts to safeguard the system have been at least partially successful. Figures for convictions point to a very clear peak in 2004, when 22 people were found guilty, with half of all convictions for electoral malpractice during the 2000s relating to elections in the period from 2003-05. Yet, wider evidence also hints at significantly more malpractice than is captured by the number of convictions. From 2008-10, around one-tenth of cases examined by police resulted in the police issuing either formal cautions or providing ‘informal advice short of a caution’.
Since 2004, the Electoral Commission has consistently argued for the introduction of individual voter registration, in place in Northern Ireland since 2002, whereby all electors are required to provide their date of birth, signature and national insurance number when registering to vote.
However, it was not until Labour’s Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 that provisions were made for a phased introduction of individual voter registration in Great Britain over a period of five years. The coalition’s Programme for Government has since made the commitment to “reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”.
While reform of the registration system is to be welcomed, individual registration carries a genuine risk of depressing overall registration levels. And it will do little to guarantee the security of postal votes.
Although the Electoral Commission’s code of conduct specifies, in fairly strong terms, that party representatives should not to handle postal ballots, it is not illegal for them to do so. Indeed, the code of conduct renders the handling of postal ballots something of a grey area by suggesting that there are legitimate circumstances in which a voter may ask a party representative to collect and return their ballot paper.
It is important to note that the Commission does not make the law and that political parties have tended to resist any suggestion that handling postal ballots by party members should be defined a criminal offence.
Perhaps, then, it is time for all parties to re-visit the consensus they reached in 2000 that postal voting on demand was necessary to increase turnout. A decade on, there is no evidence at all to suggest that postal votes increase electoral participation, but plenty of evidence to suggest that they undermine public confidence in the electoral process.
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Director of Democratic Audit, and co-author (with Stephen Crone) of Funding Political Parties in Great Britain: A Pathway to Reform.
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