Electoral fraud – the truth about personation

I doubt that one in a hundred readers of LDV have ever heard of a tendered ballot paper, let alone seen one.

Electoral law makes provision at EVERY election for the issue of tendered ballot papers, sometimes known as pink ballot papers.

If you go down to the polling station to vote and the presiding officer says to you, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you a ballot paper because you’ve already voted”, what do you do? The answer is that you can insist that you haven’t voted, and the presiding officer must then offer you a ‘tendered’ ballot paper. This is the same as the white ballot paper, but for two things.

  1. It is a different colour (usually pink)
  2. It is stored separately from the white ballot papers.

How is it counted? The answer is that it isn’t, unless the election is challenged in an electoral court. In that case, the original ballot paper is found and compared with the tendered ballot paper and the tendered paper is the one that is counted. Now of course you might quite correctly argue that this breaks the secrecy of the election, but it does give an element of protection against personation, that is the attempt to impersonate a voter and vote instead of him/her.

I have been involved in an election where tendered ballot papers were issued. This was in a big city in 2008, in a local election where the Lib Dem candidate lost by less than 120 votes. The election had many strange features, but it became clear that a party had engaged in personation by finding out who wasn’t going to vote and sending someone to vote for them. Following this narrow win, I asked the returning officer if there had been any tendered ballot papers issued and there had. He also told me it happened in many wards in the city.

Why was the election not challenged? We were told that in order to challenge the election, we not only had to get proof that there was fraudulent behaviour but also put down £20,000 to cover costs if we lost the challenge. No-one in the local party had that sort of money to risk, so the result went unchallenged.

The problem with personation is that it is quite easy to do, especially in areas with large electorates, like big cities, where the presiding officer cannot know the voters personally. It’s also quite difficult to spot. Does that mean it’s widespread? I have no idea. It has not been considered to be an important factor in considering election fraud. Maybe it should be.

My only other experience when I absolutely know it took place was in a by-election for the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1968 or 1969. I was a rather naïve teenage university student who was helping the Liberal candidate and was asked to take a certain woman to vote. I admit I was puzzled when she put on a heavy coat and a headscarf before going into the polling station and even more startled when a minute or two later, she rushed out and told me to drive off saying “They’ve spotted me”. She then told me that this was her eleventh such venture that day and she’d got away with the other 10! This anti-democratic activity was justified by saying that the other parties were doing it as well. (The Liberal candidate did not win, by the way).

What is the answer to this? Actually, the only answer is for voters to have photo ID, before being allowed to vote, as almost all democratic countries except the UK have. Yet somehow the normal democratic practice in large parts of the globe is seen as anathema here in the UK. The answer is surely to have a simple process of issuing a suitable voting ID to those without driving licences, bus passes or passports, rather than pretending that electoral fraud doesn’t take place. Even if it only takes place on a small scale, electoral fraud is wholly unacceptable and we Liberal Democrats, whose predecessor Liberal Party introduced the secret ballot, should surely be up to protecting our democracy.

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Do you think that the availability of the marked register facilitates fraud? I’ve never seen the justification for this, it’s an unnecessary breach of voters’ privacy.

  • John Marriott 18th Oct '19 - 4:46pm

    As they were supposed to say in Northern Ireland; “Vote early and vote OFTEN”! I’m glad that you don’t seem to have any objection to us all having Photo ID. Neither do I. I see no sinister motive behind it and in this day and age it’s not that difficult to do.

  • Chris Bertram 18th Oct '19 - 5:14pm

    Personation is not where the action is in electoral fraud. That’s in postal vote farming, but there are no plans to tackle this in any meaningful way.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 18th Oct '19 - 8:29pm

    I think it is difficult to estimate the extent of voter fraud – whether by personation or harvesting the postal vote – because our processes make it difficult to detect. Personation only comes to light if a voter turns up to vote and finds that someone claiming to be them has already voted. The very low reported incidence of personation could simply be because those who organise fraudulent voting are careful only to use the votes of people who are not going to vote.

    So how do you find out that a voter is not going to vote? One easy way is to go and ask them. We have all canvassed people who told us that they were not going to vote and who could not be persuaded to turn out. We study the marked registers to find out whether our supporters voted. But these registers also provide evidence, year on year, of people who never vote and seem unlikely to start.

    Some years ago I fought a big-city Council election where the result seemed out of line both with previous voting patterns and with the outcome predicted from canvassing. This is when I first came across tendered ballot papers. It really seems improbable that the handful of tendered ballot papers issued were in fact the total of stolen votes. As to postal votes, in one area where our postal vote inexplicably fell to about one-third of its normal level, innocent feedback from elderly supporters after the election told us that someone had been calling on them door-to-door to collect their postal votes.

    If we are to start healing our divided country, we need to have confidence in the election results. That means that our electoral processes need to be robust enough both to protect voters from lies and manipulation and to ensure that the person who votes is in fact who they claim to be.

  • Peter Hayes 18th Oct '19 - 9:03pm

    How could my mother prove who she was to a council official? Given up driving and passport at 80+ a and all household bills were in my fathers name.

  • Steve Comer 19th Oct '19 - 8:45am

    I think personation is more common than the the number of reported complaints would indicate. Chris Rennard’s book mentions his suspicions about this being used in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1985 I was agent for an election Bristol where a large number of people came from outside Bristol to help hold a Council seat in a ward we had gained from Labour two years earlier. (Thanks to Thatcher abolishing the Met Counties!).

    All our returns and information showed that we had just won it, but there was a surge of turnout amongst people who never voted in local elections. We were suspicious when we saw a larger number voters angrily refusing to show poll cards or give numbers to tellers (even those with Labour rosettes), and those we did manage to see had names that were not common for people in their 20s and 30s eg. (Gladys, Edith, Arnold etc.) Many of the outside volunteers for Labour that year had Liverpool accents, and did not appear to know any local Labour members who were telling!
    As in Michaels’ example we couldn’t pursue it through lack of evidence and the cost of litigation.

    I am concerned about anything that brings in ID cards by stealth, but there is another way of dealing with this. I live in Cyprus now and voted in the 2016 Local elections as an EU Citizen. When you register to vote here you have to supply a photograph (or have one taken at the District Office), and residence documents are checked when you register. When you get your poll card it has your name and photo on it, though not your address IIRC. This does mean that you DO need your card to vote, but this is a better system than the one proposed for the UK.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '19 - 10:52am

    @Peter Hayes
    Answer to your question: by having an ID Card. And WHY NOT?

  • @Peter Hayes “How could my mother prove who she was to a council official?”
    In exactly the same way as she does now!
    The id card in this instance is just to tell someone else that the person pictured and named on it provided the necessary paperwork to the satisfaction of another council/government official.

    >Given up driving and passport at 80+ a and all household bills were in my fathers name.
    If you are worried about being able to prove id to a council official, you should also be concerned as to whether she can prove right to live in her current house and right to abode in the UK… I’m not just saying this; as a result of two deaths in the family, we’ve been through both of these…

  • I thought the LDs were meant to be the party of civil liberties and against ID cards and such?

    At least they were in the days before Clegg et al.

  • Mick Taylor 19th Oct '19 - 6:00pm

    There is a big difference between the ID card system that we successfully opposed and voter ID cards.
    The ID system that was proposed and defeated, was for a computer based ID system where all a person’s information was held in a central database. This IS unacceptable.
    However, a paper (or plastic) ID which is not computer based but is issued to voters (a polling card with a photo?) is of course completely different.

  • Michael Hall 19th Oct '19 - 9:17pm

    Peter Hayes
    I would suggest a council tax bill in father’s name plus your parents’ marriage certificate. This will have your mum’s signature on it, which can be checked if necessary.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Oct '19 - 8:53am

    Michael Meadowcroft is quite right that the present postal voting system is open to abuse and needs to be changed.
    That doesn’t mean that personation its not a problem.
    The question that Michael and all the other people who oppose voter ID is why is it such a problem in the UK when it isn’t in most other democracies?

  • jayne mansfield 22nd Oct '19 - 9:46am

    I really think that the question in his last sentence needs answering.

    Our democracy is a precious thing. It is madness to turn a blind eye when it is known that voting fraud is happening. Our democracy is not only a precious thing, it is a fragile thing and it needs protecting.

    The idea that it is beyond the whit of a government in an established democracy to ensure that those who are entltled to vote are given the means to do so, is ludicrous. The present system does not work for the most powerless individuals who are the victims of voter fraud, so why pretend that a requirement for voter ID would be the cause of their disempowerment?

    A misguided paternalism works against the individual’s right and capacity for self determination.

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