Monday, 6 August 2018

Time for a re-think

Over centuries – and, in some countries, still today - men and women have battled to get the vote. As Churchill reminded us, when compared to the alternatives, democracy is the least worst form of governance.
Democracy requires elections. There is no one pure type of election process; all have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s perfectly reasonable to have different sorts of election process dependent upon whether the election is for a President or a Mayor, Parliament or Council, or Executive or Revising Chamber.
But, whatever the type or process, all elections have to be conducted with absolute honesty. In many countries, we rely on International Election Observation Missions to monitor and report on the integrity of elections. In the last week, in the maelstrom of contrasting views, we have had to place some reliance on observers of the elections in Zimbabwe to get an accurate picture of events.
What is little known in the UK is that international observers have long been very critical of some of the UK’s election infrastructure. Forget for a moment that we still rely on stubby pencils, attached to a piece of string, to mark our X.
The biggest criticisms are (1) the way in which the electoral register is constructed and (2) the lack of a requirement to produce ID when we arrive at the polling station to claim our voting paper.
The first arises from historic processes and an assumption that we will tell the truth about who lives in our home and is eligible to vote. Actually, the biggest disgrace about this issue is the level of under-registration, particularly in those inner-city communities with the highest mobility.
The second arises because, unlike most of the rest of the world, we do not have a single, reliable, robust method of ID. It might be argued that the then Labour Government approached the issue of ID cards in completely the wrong way but, there can be little doubt now, that the UK missed a huge opportunity to get some sense into policies and policy implementation when proposals for bio-metric ID were abandoned.
I have no time for those politicians and newspaper editors who bang on about ‘migration being uncontrolled/we don’t know who is coming in or out of our country’ or about ‘stopping unentitled people from accessing our benefits’ system or NHS’ when they have campaigned against bio-metric ID cards which are an essential element for implementing and managing such policies. It’s hypocritical to suggest otherwise.
I’m very clear that our election processes must demonstrate integrity. I’m intolerant of those who try to abuse or cheat the system, and believe that the law should come down hard on any perpetrators.
As it happens, I do think that elections in the UK are overwhelmingly honest. However, in every year since 1945, there have been a small number of reports of ‘personation’ (obtaining a vote by pretending to be someone else), but there have been very few prosecutions or convictions. At one time, in the 1960s, it was suggested that personation had become an Olympic Sport in some parts of N Ireland, but no-one suggests it is a significant issue today.
More recently, concerns have been raised about posting vote fraud. Occurrences are not new. As it happens, I was able to see at close hand when, in the early 1980s, Sheffield Liberal Democrat Councillor Malcolm Johnson was convicted of, and imprisoned for, postal vote fraud. He had collected unused postal votes from the homes of recently deceased electors, and then voted for himself.
There have been a small number of well-publicised but isolated examples of postal vote fraud in the near twenty years since electors could choose to have a postal vote instead of having to prove that they were on their deathbed or thousands of miles away on holiday or work.
So, despite a significant amount of well-argued criticism and opposition, this government decided to undertake trials in five areas in the last elections held in May this year, when electors would have to produce ID before they could obtain their voting paper. The government said that “A report from the Electoral Commission showed that allegations of people pretending to be other people to steal their votes doubled nationally between 2014 and 2016.”
However, the results of these pilots are now out. They show that some 350 people were prevented from voting in those five areas because they did not have the right form of ID.
So, how does this compare with the problem of ‘personation’ that these pilots were said to be solving? Well, in 2014, there were 21 alleged cases of personation at a polling station, in 2016 there were 45, but in 2017 the number actually fell again to just 28 cases. Even then, the UK Statistics Authority was critical of this analysis as it did not put its figures in context, they “are not typical of the fuller time series”, which showed an average of 22 cases pa over the last decade.
To summarise, there were 172 alleged cases of personation at a polling station between 2010 and 2017, and in just five small areas, and at a cost of more than £1 million, more than twice as many people (350) who were entitled to vote were actually prevented from voting.
It is time for the government to re-think.