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7 June 2004

The hanging chads are coming here

By Michael Meadowcroft

Over the past 15 years I have worked in 30 new democracies, all of which have electoral commissions of varying independence and quality. When I criticised government influence on a commission, it was pointed out to me forcefully that Britain had no electoral commission at all. This was true then, and there was no need for one because the major parties were committed to working consensually to ensure the highest quality of electoral administration. Now, following the establishment of the Electoral Commission in 2000, the government need no longer consult the other parties and it can force through measures which undermine the electoral process. The commission can only advise and the government can ignore its advice, as it has done over the postal ballots that face one in three of all English voters this month.

The switch to all-postal voting is a fundamental change in Britain’s democracy that will destroy our reputation for having the most secure electoral administration in the world. Checks and balances are being abandoned and the equivalent of Florida’s “hanging chads” are on their way here. The failure to deliver all the forms in time is just the first symptom of the many problems we can expect.

Parties have always seen postal and proxy voting as a way of acquiring votes illegitimately. In the past, it gained them a few marginal seats; now every seat is up for grabs.

For instance, it has long been legal to register at more than one address – students and second-home owners do it – but illegal to vote more than once in an election. When people had to vote in person, a publicly available register, marked with those who had voted, provided the necessary evidence. No such register will be available for postal ballots. Voters will not even be able to check that their votes have been received.

Indeed, nobody will know how many ballot papers have been used that never reached the rightful voter. Houses in multiple occupation and student residences have their mail delivered in one batch and anyone can, and no doubt will, pick up all the ballot papers. Candidates and parties are informed of the date on which the votes are despatched and it is easy to get a supporter in an area of multiple occupation to pick up all the envelopes the day they arrive. Alternatively, party workers can visit voters offering to “help” fill in the form and to post it.

The most unscrupulous and efficient parties will go further. With a small amount of effort, they can build up computerised registers. Over a period of time, the registers will show up those (perhaps 20 per cent of the population) who never vote in any election. A party worker can easily apply to have these electors’ postal votes sent elsewhere, knowing that the rightful recipients will either not notice or not complain.

Then there are men who try to influence how their wives vote, or ethnic-minority groups where husbands and fathers usually take decisions for the whole family. Voting in person prevents such pressures being effective.

Finally, how can candidates witness the poll and the count as they now do? The postal voting process will extend over some three weeks and is simply not conducive to the candidates being able to assure themselves that fraud has not taken place. The regulations governing voting in person are designed to enable candidates and parties to check each other. This will not now be feasible. You would expect the Electoral Commission to take steps to defend the security of the ballot, but all it has done is to publish a code of conduct for parties and candidates. This is akin to the Pope urging chastity in a brothel.

The pressure for postal voting is all in the sacred name of increasing the turnout. But that is not a worthwhile end if considerable numbers of votes are fraudulently cast. The turnout may go up but the valid vote may well go down – and no one will know.

Michael Meadowcroft is the former Liberal MP for Leeds West

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