The Electoral Commission gave a passive and complacent response to concerns about electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets. More recently they argued (unsuccessfully) for postponing individual electoral registration by a year. That would have meant the tighter new rules, designed to reduce fraud, would not have applied for the important elections in May. Of course, there will always be a tendency for officialdom to favour inertia and their own administrative convenience. But it is a victory for democracy that the Electoral Commission’s plea for foot-dragging has been rejected.
It would also have meant the new boundaries for the next General Election would have been based on artificially inflated electorates. Ghost voters. Naturally, in debating these changes, the greatest attention has been on the shocking instances of electoral fraud. But there was another aspect which, although more mundane, probably represented a bigger distortion of our democracy. If those who have moved are left on an electoral register the official tally of voters is higher than the reality. That means that boroughs that fail to “clean” their electoral register are rewarded with extra constituencies. The places where this happens tend to be solid Labour territory.
Let us consider the case of Hackney – with the most innaccurate electoral register in the country. Despite repeated efforts, no evidence could be found that 23 per cent of its electorate actually live there. For years new voters had been added but the old ones not removed. The electoral register had not been “cleaned”. Either the “head of the household” had not sent in an update – or such an update had not been entered. If there are 25,000 more voters than exist in reality, that means perhaps a third of a seat.
Why was the turnout in the General Election 66 per cent as a national average, but only 56 per cent in Hackney? It wasn’t apathy – it was that many of those left on the roll have long since departed.
Caroline Bradley wrote on Labour List yesterday that those who “fall off are more likely to be Labour voters”. But these are people where there have been nine attempts to contact them. Overwhelmingly they have “fallen off” because they have moved out. She conflates that issue with the genuine problem of many not registering in the first place – particularly young voters, black voters and poor voters.
Greater accuracy of the electoral register will not hit only Labour areas. Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea are areas with large electoral turnover which tends to inflate the register at any given time and thus lead to over representation. In the Welsh valleys maintaining an accurate register is less of an effort. But overall, it is generally accepted that greater accuracy in the numbers will result in a net gain to the Conservatives of around 10 seats.
That is on top of the net gain from equalising the electorate in constituencies, with a reduction in the number of seats from 650 to 600. Anthony Wells calculates that this change would increase the Conservative majority from 12 to 44. So combining equalisation and individual registration would mean a majority of around 54.
Then there remains the question of what impact there will be in reducing fraud, and what difference any such impact would have on the 2020 General Election.
There seems at present to be a particularly difficulty regarding electoral fraud within certain Muslim communities. But in the past it was more associated with Northern Ireland. Individual registration was introduced there in 2002. Ten per cent fewer names were on the new register and it was judged to have been important in reducing fraud.
Lord Empey said, in a recent House of Lords debate:
“In the Botanic Ward in Belfast, near the university—my noble friend Lord Lexden will be very familiar with it—the number of people on the electoral register dropped by 27%. The reason was that the students, nurses, junior doctors and others in the area who occupied many of the dwellings were not there. However, they were registered at their home address in various other parts of the country. Just because a number of people are taken off the register, that does not mean that they are not voting somewhere. That is an issue that has to be taken into account, but which has not been in this debate so far.”
The Oldham by-election was the last hurrah for the “head of the household” based electoral register. That is welcome. The new arrangements will make fraud harder. However more should be done. Most other countries require some form of ID. Not only western countries but developing nations regard at least some safeguard against voting more than once as fundamental. Countries including Bangladesh, India, Mexico and Peru have used the requirement to dip your forefinger in purple ink.
“Vote early, vote often,” is not acceptable, whether in Belfast or Bow.
We should probably also revert to the previous arrangement where applying for a postal vote could be done for a particular reason for a particular election. It has got out of control and abuse is widespread. The individual electoral registration arrangements will help significantly, but not solve the problem altogether.
How much fraud was there in Oldham? Reports of people handing in handfuls of Postal Votes to polling stations on the day fuel suspicions. On the other hand the unexpected result was partly due to a lack of advance warning. In previous by-elections there have often been polls (sometimes paid for by the proprietor of this site). Not so this time. Also there has been a change in the arrangements for the invigilation of postal votes before polling day. Previously party workers could watch closely enough to get some idea of how the votes were going even before Polling Day. Now they have to keep their distance. In the Christmas spirit this by-election thus provided a bit of a surprise.
Local authorities failing to maintain an accurate register will quickly reach for that lazy complaint about “lack of resources”. But in the same debate there was the maiden speech of electoral expert Lord Hayward who noted the costs of an inflated electoral roll:
“There is a substantial burden on local authorities. They have to print the electoral rolls with all these people on them, many of whom should not be there. They issue polling cards. They issue ballot papers. There has to be freepost provision for these people for some elections. There is an unnecessary burden on a large number of local authorities. If one removes retained voters from the register, we will not be sending out all the unnecessary cards, ballot papers, freeposts, et cetera, during the upcoming election.”
Individual electoral registration is not a panacea but it will help our democratic system to work better. It so happens that removing unfairness will probably be a marginal help to the Conservatives. It is certainly a change that all democrats should welcome.