Anxiety over voter fraud must not stifle electoral registration

By rushing the implementation of the new scheme, the government risks leaving millions off the register.

This week, the Electoral Commission released proposals to clamp down on electoral fraud, requiring voters to show photographic ID at polling stations. Sensible measures to tackle fraud are welcome, but we should be careful not to further exacerbate the already woefully low levels of democratic engagement. There is real concern that the government’s current plans will make things worse. 

The Electoral Commission themselves say there is no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK and there have been only a handful of convictions. Yet, we know that at the last general election, only 44% of young people voted. Millions of eligible voters are not even on the electoral register, which means they can’t vote and are not represented in the drawing of political boundaries. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups on the register. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.

Inevitably, there is a balancing act between protecting our elections from potential fraud but also encouraging as many people as possible to go out and vote. Most of the serious cases of fraud have been linked to the exploitation of postal voting, and the rules have been tightened. It’s important we don’t stifle electoral registration in the midst of understandable anxiety about fraud.

The last Labour government legislated for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, which is an important step in modernising the way we vote and protecting the system from exploitation. The change means individuals themselves will need to join the electoral register, instead of a single member of a household filling out the form for all inhabitants. Labour's approach was that the changes would be phased over a number of years, with numerous checks and balances to ensure levels of registration were high. 

Yet the government are rushing the implementation of the new scheme, ignoring widespread concerns that by doing so, they risk leaving millions off the register. Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. The results only emphasise our fears. 8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held. Urban areas are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low. In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes. Yet the government continues to go ahead. 

Labour has called on the government to delay the implementation process, giving local authorities, universities and electoral registration officers more time to ensure as many people as possible are involved and represented. It’s a good example of the importance of striking a balance when it comes to reforming our democratic processes. The move to Individual Electoral Registration is the right thing to do, and will help tackle fraud. But it must be delivered with care and by adopting a phased approach, to ensure as many people as possible are involved. 

The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement and enables the selection of juries. We should try to ensure as many people as possible are registered, whilst maintaining vigilance about potential fraud. 

Voting slips are emptied out of the ballot box during the South Shields by-election on May 2, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt