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Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

I have previously written about the increasing problem of the police failing to enforce the historic law relating to the secret ballot. For years now, there has been increasing concern about electors, usually women, being watched and even supervised whilst voting, to the surprise and concern of other voters. Democracy Volunteers, which is accredited by the Electoral Commission to observe polling, recorded that in a recent election in Tower Hamlets they witnessed “family voting” in 58 per cent of polling stations they attended, which came to 19 per cent of those they observed voting.

During the GLA election last year, a resident formally complained to the local returning officer and the police that in the space of a few minutes in his local polling station he saw two different men in a polling booth watching female electors cast their votes. The police response, three months after the complaint was registered, concluded “In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries carried out cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken.”

This is completely incorrect as every single election act since 1872 has reaffirmed the primacy of the secret ballot. Section 66 of the 1983 Act, which this officer was using as the basis of his response, is headed “Requirement of Secrecy.”

I wrote to this officer regarding this matter and received the same response. I responded to this, by letter, quoting the requirement of secrecy in Acts between 1872-1983 and, having taken advice, asked the following question “Have I misunderstood the Law as quoted from the 1872 and 1983 Acts or, despite the elector approaching officials at the polling station, is there an absence of evidence?”

I am told that this officer is currently working on his response to my question. I now know why there has been a six month delay in replying to my letter. As well as the police, I also contacted the electoral commission. I asked them, as I did the police “if a person is standing alongside a voter in a polling booth watching this person cast their vote, do they accept the secret ballot is no longer enshrined in law”?

Before moving on to the various responses that I received from both sources, the law which has remained unchanged from 1872 is that blind, disabled and illiterate electors may be assisted to vote. However, this is to be undertaken in controlled circumstances by the presiding officer and recorded by the presiding officer.

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission, responded to me saying that ”someone accompanying another person into a polling booth would bring into consideration whether there may have been an offence under S66.”

Section 66 is headed “Requirement of secrecy.” If there is a requirement of secrecy when voting, how can Posner say “there may have been an offence?”

Posner then goes on to remind me that the correct course of action is “to report this to the police.” This is, despite my confirming to him that the police claim that they “require evidence that influence was being exerted” and in the absence of this, no other electoral law is broken.

In responding, I again referred to the Requirement of Secrecy pointing out that an elector cannot be voting in secret if watched by another person. I asked, “am I misunderstanding the law” and if not, “why is the Metropolitan Police requiring proof of “influence” before they consider an offence has taken place.”

In response, Posner confirmed the secrecy of the ballot is enshrined in law but then added “for the police to follow up on any potential breach they would require a specific allegation relating to an offence, eg: “ that a voter had been interfered with when recording their vote, or that the voter had been induced to display their ballot paper after marking it,” Again, this sidesteps the overall objective of the secret ballot; that an elector casts their vote in secret.

The letter concludes with information of the Electoral Commission campaign “your vote is yours alone.” If the Electoral Commission believe that this is possible whilst electors are casting a ballot, not in secret but under observation, then their “Your vote is yours alone” campaign is meaningless.

After receiving this response from the Electoral Commission, I met a senior police officer who informed me verbally and later by email that the police have been acting “on advice from the Electoral Commission and this advice is “the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been broached or that they have been unduly influenced (S115 of the 1983 Act).”

Following this meeting, I wrote again to Posner with details of both the conversation and the email adding that nowhere in any legislation from 1872 to date is it the onus of the elector to claim that secrecy has been broached. I reiterated that, from 1872, all legislation and Statutory Instruments require election officials’ election agents and the police to protect the secrecy of the ballot..

I was even more surprised to see the reference to Section 115 of the 1983 Act which concerns the use of (or the threat of) ‘force, violence or restraint’ or the infliction of ‘temporal … injury, damage, harm or loss… to induce or compel that person to vote. This goes well beyond protecting the secrecy of the ballot within a polling station and an elector being overlooked whilst voting by another person.

I then asked the following questions:

  • When was the decision made by the Electoral Commission to advise the police on the ballot in the terms that I have quoted above?
  • Which body or person(s) within the Electoral Commission approved and initiated this advice being given to the police?
  • Why were neither the public nor Parliament consulted on this advice, which, fundamentally alters the secret ballot, and the protection of the secret ballot, as established since 1872 and which has remained unchanged in all subsequent legislation?

The response from Posner is quite extraordinary. My questions are put aside but he then writes “the MPS indicated to you that advice from the local authority and the commission is that the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached, but this does not appear to be advice that the Electoral Commission would or has given.” That is not what I was told either verbally or in writing by the police and verbally by Tower Hamlets Council.

Suddenly, the Electoral Commission is reverting to the law that has existed since 1872 regarding the secrecy of the ballot. This then brings into question the conversation and email from the police and indeed a similar email to Tower Hamlets electoral services, both of whom stated that they had received, by email, contrary advice to that Posner stated was the position of the Electoral Commission.

Lord Hayward, who takes an interest in these matters and has witnessed “family voting” whilst acting as a polling agent in Tower Hamlets, is seeking to introduce an amendment to the Elections Bill to reaffirm the primacy of the secret ballot. This was reported in the Sunday Telegraph and the Electoral Commission are quoted:

“The existing guidance to returning officers and their staff makes clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.”

Are they denying the existence of the guidance that both the police and Tower Hamlets Council say that they have received? I have written to Posner and will publish his response.

Now for the BBC intervention in this matter. The Corporation publishes numerous briefing papers on its website. In 2015 they published a paper on Britain’s first secret ballot.

At the end is a contribution from an academic, in this case, Professor Steven Fielding, who is extremely supportive and active within the Labour Party and takes a contrarian view of the secret ballot.

The Professor suggests that voting by secret ballot may no longer be necessary:

“When you vote it’s a private action but it has enormous public consequences.

“You might think that if people are voting secretly, then they are voting for their own selfish interests. Would it not be worth considering voting in public again – would that be more likely to make us vote as members of our community? “Before, you couldn’t police it properly to protect people from intimidation, but you could do that now.

“Maybe we don’t need the secret ballot any more.”

Can you imagine public voting in front of the assembled ranks of Momentum? Had Donald Trump suggested this, the BBC would clear their schedules for attack programmes. Nearer home, we have a left-wing Labour supporter proposing that a fundamental of democracy be abolished yet it remains on the BBC website as a briefing on electoral matters for several years.