“The [electoral] system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that.”
So said Judge Richard Mawrey as he quashed the results of two local council elections in Birmingham.
The trial has finally raised the lid on the dirty secret that the political elite have long known about: Postal voting is a mess and is open to massive abuse. It's a terrible shame we had to get to a trial before the problems could be properly raised. The media coverage from this case will dramatically undermine the faith voters have in our electoral system, potentially reducing turnout – the exact opposite of the intended effects postal voting was supposed to have.
As I say, the elite knew about the problems, and many voters instictively felt that postal voting wasn't quite right. For example Birmingham's Labour leader wrote to Blair:
“At present, in relation to the handling of postal ballot papers, the law is so general that almost anything is legal.”
Furthermore the judge totally smashed the image of the Returning Officer as the key person responsible for ensuring a proper and accurate election. On Returning Officers Judge Mawrey said:
“If something seems wrong with the postal ballot papers, you have no powers or resources to ferret around to see if the votes are legitimate.”
The simple fact is that no matter what techniques are used (hand delivery, pin codes, better electoral rolls) any form of postal voting eliminates the secret ballot. Thus voters can be coerced or sell their votes and we immediately see why the secret ballot is so important. Postal voting inevitably risks an election's integrity.
I've long had doubts over postal voting, and these were confirmed when I assessed the 2003 All Postal Ballot Pilot in Brighton & Hove which seriously lacked transparency and threatened citizens' ability to vote through lost or stolen ballots.
Despite many knowing of the problems, the Government has pressed onwards with electoral experiments. We even saw a committee of MPs calling to make postal voting easier. The cynical view is that Labour tends to do better with higher turnouts so tricks like postal ballots were popular. The less cynical view is that it's easier to play with e-voting, supermarket polling booths and so on than really changing how one does politics. A few small voices of protest have tried to stem the tide but to little success and meanwhile the Electoral Commission were saying odd things. This changed when the Electoral Commission came out with a major report on all postal ballots after the troubled experiments for the Euro elections. As a result of this report in 2004 the Commission bravely went into their first ever open conflict with the Government over the use of all postal in the regional assembly referenda.
The Comission didn't just want to stop all postal for the referenda but actually said that:
“All-postal voting should no longer be pursued for use at UK elections.”
Jolly good stuff I felt… The juggernaut of postal voting was finally beginning to slow. The Commission felt that despite most reported problems not being significant (a claim which I feel they couldn't justify) the negative impact on voter's confidence was enough to stop any further pilots. Additionally the Commission published guidance on how to handle postal ballots if canvassing, yet is seems the parties are happily ignoring this basic fig-leaf covering the entire system's flaws.
How this ends we cannot know. By the end of the election I forsee many challenged results in marginal constituencies.
What the media says
The Times has taken significant interest in this issue, shame on some of the other papers for failing to see its fundamental importance to the UK's survival as a serious and trusted democracy. A Times leader “Votes and Values” sets the tone well. The Daily Mail also has an excellent leader column, though I think it's a bit much to implicate the national Labour government in the local Labour political fraud.
The Telegraph asked why it's taken so long for a tightening of the electoral legislation to be drafted… well it hasn't actually been drafted yet and won't be until after the election. It's a good question which The Times also asked.
Alarm bells should be ringing with the news that:
- Six Labour councillors were found guilty of electoral fraud in Birmingham. BBC
- A further 1,000 uncounted votes have just shown up in Birmingham. Guardian
- A Labour councillor was found guilty of vote rigging in Blackburn. BBC
- Increases of nearly 500% have been seen in postal vote applications in some areas with marginal constituencies. BBC
- Apparently the Government is already preparing for the next round of e-voting with invites going out to suppliers. Silicon.com
This could be a disaster. I sincerely hope not.