Sir John Holmes, a former private secretary to Sir John Major and Tony Blair, must have been shocked when his appointment as chairman of the Electoral Commission was overshadowed by a row over pencils.
When he took office in November, Holmes stepped into a building media storm, seeded by a story that the commission had received nearly 200 calls from people worried that their pencil votes might have been rubbed out and changed at the EU referendum in June.
The commission’s press officers had to explain that pens have not been historically supplied in polling booths because “they may dry out” or the ink might smudge when the paper is folded, spoiling the ballot. They vowed to look into “alternatives to providing pencils in polling stations, which could improve confidence”. Although not quite as amusing as the US’ ‘hanging chads’ of 2000 – where incompletely punched holes in ballot papers created a furore – that such a banal fear should have prompted Parliamentary questions and so many complaints is a signal of the increasingly fragile faith that the British have in their electoral system.
Since the turn of the millennium, concerns have been raised over problems from postal vote fraud to the rich buying elections, voter impersonation to dodgy boundary reviews, the legal to the illegal. And it is a problem across the country: in political circles, Bradford, Tower Hamlets, Falkirk and Birmingham have all become synonymous with electoral rigging.
The Economist Intelligence Unit rates the UK as the world’s 16th best-functioning democracy, though it scores poorly for political participation. This means Britain is one of 20 that qualify as a ‘full democracy’ – unlike Italy or France – but it still places the country well behind Scandinavian countries, as well as New Zealand and Canada. With monumental decisions made at the ballot box over the past two years, should the British public implicitly trust their electoral system?
The borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, is the most recent epicentre of electoral scandal. In 2015, the elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, was stripped of his office after the Election Court ruled that he had used “corrupt and illegal practices”, including postal voting fraud, bribery, “treating” – giving free food and drink to voters to encourage them to support him – and making outright false statements against his rival, including calling him a racist.
In the aftermath, the former cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles was asked to conduct a thorough review of electoral fraud in the 21st century. The annex to Pickles’ report, published this summer, found 17 examples of significant convictions for electoral fraud since 2005. These ranged from a Liberal Democrat agent who stole a book of unused ballot papers at a polling station to a UK Independence Party candidate in Great Yarmouth who was sentenced to 200 hours of community service for allowing forged signatures on his nomination paper.
There were 665 alleged cases of electoral fraud and complaints in 2015, compared to 406 in 2012. Most complaints were over ‘campaign offences’, which include false statements about rival candidates.
Pickles’ 50 recommendations to break this damning cycle included criminalising the use of cameras in polling stations, so people are not intimidated into recording how they voted, and increased maximum sentences for fraud. However, one expert who gave evidence to the report says Pickles was “fairly cautious – he didn’t look at anything very radical”.
A frustration for many was Pickles’ refusal to limit postal voting. Introduced to help the military serving overseas and the infirm in 1948, the practice was relaxed in 2001 so anyone could apply to vote by post without giving a reason. Critics want postal voting restricted, again, to those who are physically incapable of getting to the polling station.
“We relaxed action on postal votes and now it’s become a free-for-all,” says Bob Eastwood, who stood for the Conservatives in Blackburn at last year’s election.
Eastwood gave evidence to Pickles’ report – Blackburn is on the Electoral Commission’s fraud watch list. Last year a Labour local election candidate was questioned by police for seven hours for alleged postal vote irregularities, but they concluded no criminal offence had taken place.
Postal votes can be manipulated in many ways. In 2010, five men, including two former city councillors, were jailed for their part in a failed postal vote scam in the Bradford West constituency during the 2005 general election. Their preferred candidate, the Tory Haroon Rashid, lost, but detectives found around 900 suspicious applications for postal votes. Many of the supposed applicants had no idea that they had requested a postal vote; others did not even exist.
In other cases, ballots have been taken from voters or their votes have been overseen by campaigners to make sure their candidate gets the ‘X’. In Tower Hamlets, for example, activists for Rahman’s party, Tower Hamlets First, were told to fill out 250 postal vote application forms each at a meeting in a Bangladeshi restaurant.
“There’s huge concern that in some communities freedom of choice is controlled by others,” says Eastwood, echoing Pickles’ conclusion that in certain communities, notably Bangladeshi and Pakistani, there are instances of pressure being put on young people and women to “vote according to the will of the elders”.
Eastwood says that there is often a tell-tale sign: “Over the years postboxes at election time have been rammed with postal votes. It’s not a coincidence they go to the same postbox.”
John Hemming, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, helped uncover a postal voting fraud in the city in 2004, in which 1,500 votes were found to have been cast illegally to help six Labour councillors to win in local elections.
“The problem with postal votes is that they’re not secret ballots,” Hemming says. “There is a complacency about it and what it does is that it tends to favour the Establishment in any particular area of the country.”
Hemming says Labour is the major culprit, but concedes that “all parties do a bit of election fraud from time to time”.
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a leading anti-corruption expert, adds: “Limiting postal voting on demand hasn’t been adopted because, curiously, all major parties think that they win from the system, even though they must be wrong and there must be winners and losers.”
However, Will Brett, head of campaigns at the Electoral Reform Society, insists limiting postal votes would be a retrograde step. “Postal voting has been shown over and over again to increase voter turnout… Broadly speaking, turnout has been on a downward slope over the decades and postal voting helped to arrest that trend.”
Not every vote counts
One of the Electoral Reform Society’s great frustrations is voter registration. Brett points out that sections of society are ‘under-registered’: the young, people who rent their homes, students, some ethnic minority groups, and people who live in the inner cities.
Last year, the government completed a transition in the voter registration system from a household survey to a system of Individual Electoral Registration, or IER. Ostensibly, this combated fraud, because it forced individuals to confirm their identities rather than risk one person answering for a whole household.
However, many individuals did not register by the time of December’s transition deadline. About 800,000 were estimated to have dropped off the electoral roll, with dramatic decreases in areas of high student population, such as Dundee West and Cambridge. Even before the change it was estimated there were millions not on the electoral roll who should be.
The EU referendum provided significant evidence that many individuals had not understood the need for IER. In the weeks prior to the vote, a campaign was launched to make sure people realised they had to register online if they had not done so last year. Around two million people registered, crashing the website.
This could have significant ramifications for future elections. In December, the government is reviewing the constituency boundaries, based on the IER. The Conservatives want to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, while also making sure that all but four seats have 75,000 voters, plus or minus 5 per cent. Tories argue that the current differential between constituency sizes is absurdly high. Also, this, they say, means Labour benefits from winning seats on fewer votes, because its urban strongholds often have fewer voters than vast rural constituencies that favour the Conservatives.
However, the fear is that the groups under-represented by the IER are largely Labour voters. This, it is feared, will skew the boundary review, with constituencies of 75,000 containing more people from groups that typically favour the Conservatives. For example, a university town will be expanded into leafy suburbs to include the requisite number of registered voters, potentially turning a Labour safe seat into a marginal.
Brett wanted the review to be based on the latest census information which, he says, “gives the cleanest data of who lives in this country”. He adds: “A sizeable chunk of the population will not be counted in the new boundaries. The Boundary Commission is not allowed to use the June, more up-to-date register because of the law. It’s explicitly mandated in the legislation, it has to be December 2015.”
Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats’ most successful electoral strategist, says: “You won’t get a fair system of constituency boundaries until you get everybody registered, but the Conservatives are dragging their heels over anything that might improve the quality of voter registration.”
No checks and balances
Northern Ireland introduced IER in 2002 and, with it, a requirement for voters to present photographic identification before they are handed ballot papers at the polling stations.
Voters in England, Scotland and Wales are not required to produce any form of identification, making voter impersonation the simplest form of election fraud. If activists can identify people who have not voted in years, they can feel reasonably safe they will not be caught out impersonating that person.
It is, as British Polling Council president John Curtice puts it, a system built on “trust”. The problem is not everyone is equally trustworthy: in 2012, a poll clerk in Derby issued ballot papers to her nieces to help a Labour council candidate who won by just 14 votes.
Pickles’ review recommended the Government should “consider options” for providing ID at polling stations, arguing this need not be “over-elaborate” and could be a proof of address, such as a utility bill. Curtice says: “Pickles is basically saying it’s time to move on, but some people won’t vote because they won’t have a piece of paper on them when they get to the ballot box.”
Similarly, the poverty of central administration means people can be registered in two places at once. If someone moves, they can join a new register straightaway and not fall off the other one for a while. In theory, people could vote in two places on the same day. That person would be fined up to £5,000 for voting twice in a general election, but would be free to cast both ballots in local elections.
As James Cleverly, a Conservative backbencher who has asked Parliamentary questions on electoral fraud, says, “We’ve got an electoral environment that for the most part works, because the system doesn’t produce results that most people have a problem with.
“But that’s despite of, not because of, the system, where you don’t have to prove your identification at the ballot box and there’s no independent method to check if people have registered in two locations. If you started from scratch, you would never create an electoral system with such a lack of checks and balances.”
However, there are Conservatives who argue the informality of British democracy is sometimes a strength. Sir Oliver Letwin, who sat in Cabinet as David Cameron’s chief lieutenant during his premiership, points out all major parties have activists looking over the shoulders of counters “looking at these pieces of paper – it’s incredibly difficult to commit large-scale electoral fraud in the UK”.
He adds: “You have to ask the question: if you actually go and talk to the individuals who are the returning officers in the various parts of the country and you spoke to the people who are working for them, are you talking to people who are inclined to defraud the system? My experience is you are not. These are very, very proper people.”
Big money politics
Former Labour leader Lord Kinnock also believes that, overall, the UK’s electoral system is “among the fairest and cleanest in the world”.
However, he is concerned by the growing influence of money. He wants to impose “very serious and strict limits… whether that applies to the Ed Stone or Conservative election expenses”. Labour was fined £20,000 in October for undeclared spending last year, including two missing payments made on a much-derided eight-and-a-half-foot-high stone tablet that bore Labour’s six general election pledges. That was the highest fine imposed by the Electoral Commission since it started in 2001.
The Conservatives admitted to failing to declare tens of thousands of pounds on a 2015 “battle bus” due to “administrative error”, but the police launched a fraud probe.
Neither side would have breached the £20m limit on election costs had the expenses been properly declared – though some argue the battle bus should have been included on the local receipts of candidates it visited. But the sharp focus on these errors shows how concerned authorities have become over the relative financial might of political parties. “You can see how the dependence on money has really corroded the American democratic system and we must never, ever emulate that here,” says Kinnock.
Labour accuses the Conservatives of relying on a few major donors, who exert undue influence, while the Conservatives attack Labour for being beholden to trade unions. For years there was a fragile truce over funding for fear that scuppering one’s source of money would result in a revenge attack on the other’s.
But Cameron tried to reform the system with the Trade Union Bill, which would have cost Labour £6m in annual income. The Bill changed the way trade unionists pay their political levy. Rather than pay automatically, union members would have had to opt in, which, psychologically, is a huge difference.
Labour brokered a compromise in the House of Lords before it was enacted. Baroness Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, says: “The Bill was clearly a party political game. It wasn’t even-handed legislation that looked at political funding as a whole, but was unashamedly just against Labour and trade union funding.”
You can see how the dependence on money has really corroded the American democratic system and we must never, ever emulate that here
Pinto-Duschinsky, the anti-corruption expert, argues that big money has become more important as political apathy has grown. “One of the problems we’re facing at the moment with British politics is a decline in membership, particularly the Conservative party. Labour now has far more members than the Tories, who have gone from 2.8 million [in 1953] to well under 200,000,” he says.
The academic is impressed that Theresa May is considering scrapping her party’s Black and White Ball, a lavish fundraiser where City financiers pay up to £1,500 for a seat to mingle with ministers and MPs.
“Political parties had declining membership and relied less on money from members than large donations,” says Pinto-
Duschinsky. “One of the most practical ways to change this is for parties to spend more time recruiting members than changing laws [on electoral spending]. But a lot of the problem is laziness by party leaders – it’s much easier to get a few big donors.”
Although Labour’s membership has soared under Jeremy Corbyn to 550,000, making it the biggest political party in Western Europe, it too had more than one million members in the 1950s.
Pinto-Duschinsky says: “To get smaller donors we require a change of culture, going up and down streets again. Now it’s Labour knocking on doors and what’s unusual is that the Conservatives had that tradition after the war. They must be embarrassed that membership patterns have reversed.”
Bringing people back into the political fold would also mean there are more activists and supporters keeping an eye on what their rivals are doing – the additional checks and balances the system so clearly needs.