This site has long argued that the British democracy is worryingly open to electoral fraud. Sadly, it has taken repeated scandals – most famously in Tower Hamlets, where widespread abuse of the system was valiantly exposed by Peter Golds and others – for this problem to become officially recognised.
There have been some improvements. Individual Voter Registration was a sensible and long overdue measure to reduce both fraud and innocent inaccuracy in the electoral register. The Labour Party bitterly opposed it, claiming it was somehow unfair to expect people to bother to register themselves to vote (which perhaps says something about their view of Labour voters). Democracy has not collapsed, as some Opposition Chicken Lickens predicted – indeed, we had a huge exercise in democracy on 23rd June, bolstered by the knowledge that it was somewhat more secure than before.
But more remains to be done. Sir Eric Pickles, in his review of the electoral system, rightly raised the issue that we require greater proof of identity to take out a library book than to cast a vote. A purely trust-based electoral system is a nice idea, but unfortunately there are people out there who are willing to abuse such a system. Some form of ID should be displayed when voting to defeat them.
It’s good news, then, that Sir Eric’s proposal for proof of identity such as a driving license, passport or utility bill to be required is set to be trialled shortly. There’s a debate to be had about the standard of ID that ought to be required – my colleague Henry Hill is of the view that the Northern Irish system of insisting on photographic proof should be the model, but I’m concerned that the Electoral Commission might effectively replicate the deeply flawed national ID card system that took so long to abolish.
Hopefully a happy medium can be agreed in which the security of the ballot is improved without restarting Blair’s costly database state.
We should not stop at requiring proof of identity, though. While there is almost certainly some electoral fraud carried out in person by people actually in the polling booth, which these measures will help to address, the fact remains that the most glaring loophole in our electoral system is the scarily uncontrolled world of postal voting.
Why bother going to the trouble and risk of impersonating someone at a polling station, if you can simply fraudulently fill in a load of postal vote forms at home using easily accessible information at very low risk of detection or punishment? If security is tightened for voting in person, then it becomes doubly important that action is taken on postal votes as well.
The Pickles report did recommend a ban on “harvesting” of large numbers of postal votes by political activists, which would be sensible, as the potential for abuse is both great and clear when such tactics are used.
It also advised requiring postal voters to reapply for their postal vote every three to five years to ensure the information was accurate and up to date. This seems nowhere near tough enough. Isn’t it time we returned to the pre-Blair system under which a postal vote had to be requested for one particular election on the basis of a specific need, rather than something available routinely as a lifestyle choice?
Postal voting on demand was introduced as a way to raise turnout, as though high turnout is the only aim of an electoral system. There is little point in raising turnout if in doing so you simultaneously lower the security of the ballot to a ludicrous degree. I’m sure many banks would like more customers to come through their doors, but they don’t think it wise to raise footfall by abolishing the need for PIN numbers when making a withdrawal. Security should not be entirely ignored in the name of participation.
Postal votes are clearly necessary in all sorts of circumstances – but making them automatically available to anyone, indefinitely and through an insecure system, is a risk too far.