Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
Democracy Volunteers is an independent organisation that observes elections without fear or favour. They are given accreditation by the Electoral Commission to undertake this work in the UK and issue verifiable reports after elections based on what they have seen. Their report on the 2019 General Election has this disturbing section on the growth of what is called “family voting.”
“Family voting continues to be biggest challenge to polling day integrity.”
They go on to say:
“Family voting occurs when two people enter a polling booth together, collude or oversee the casting of another’s vote. It is a clear violation of the secret ballot and something which is an offence. However, it persists in being either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”
Note that this independent organisation is sufficiently concerned about this law-breaking that they not only highlight it but add that it is “either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”
This has been the reality in recent years and, in this, both the police and the Electoral Commission have been culpable.
In May 2021, an elector complained that he was concerned that in the short period he was waiting to vote in his polling station, he saw two males accompany female electors into the polling booths as they voted. According to what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission has written on this site, this is breaking the law. The response by the police to the elector was as follows and I quote directly from the letter:
“In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries cannot substantiate any allegation of that any influence was being exerted in the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken. The reported matter is now closed.”
This contradicts what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, writes on Conservative Home. He says:
“Every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressurised into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with.”
As understood by every electoral act since 1872, if an elector is not voting in secret then the law is broken. In which case, how has the Metropolitan Police reached the conclusion that no law is being broken when complaints are raised that electors are being watched whilst voting?
I took this up with the officer concerned on September 1st, and wrote, quoting the law as it stands, asking how he could claim no electoral law had been broken, when it obviously had. My letter has joined my unanswered letters on electoral matters to the Metropolitan Police Service, although a reply has been promised.
In January, I met a senior police officer who informedme that the decision in this letter “that no offence had been committed” was based on advice from the Electoral Commission.
I was then sent an email by the police officer, naming the official from the Electoral Commission who had advised the police on this matter, in the following terms:
“We have checked with the Electoral Commission and have been informed that just because the voter process was not followed, in terms of secrecy (under S 66 (3) of the RPA 1983) it might not necessarily relate directly to an offence.”
The officer added that the Electoral Commission also wrote:
“The onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached or that they have been unduly influenced.”
That, of course, is completely incorrect, as the law is that every person in a polling station “shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting.”
As it happened, similar advice by the same named official had been sent to Tower Hamlets Council, who confirmed this to me. I wrote to Bob Posner immediately who responded saying:
“It may be the advice attributed to ourselves came from some other party; there may be confusion as the Commission would not state this.”
We therefore have the situation of the police and a local authority being advised that the electoral process, in terms of secrecy, not being followed might not necessarily be an offence, by the Electoral Commission, which is legally required to protect and advise on the electoral process. A fundamental of which, is the secrecy of the ballot. This is an extremely serious matter as an official of this regulatory body is changing the law relating to the secret ballot without recourse to parliament or the public. As both Tower Hamlets and the police referred to advice in the same terms, given to them by the same named official of the Electoral Commission, I enquired, for the second time “was this official acting alone or had he reported to anybody within the Commission?”
The response from Bob Posner is quite extraordinary although he writes I may have “reservations” regarding his response:
“That is not to say, of course, that there might always be a direct correlation between a situation were it may appear that a vote was not being cast in secret and an actual offence as set out in S66 of the Act. It could be the case that there would be a simple explanation as to why more than one person appeared to be in a polling booth at any one time without necessarily pointing to interference with a voter recording their vote”
This is the same Bob Posner who writes on Conservative Home “every voter has the right to vote in secret.” Sorry Bob, if more than one person is in a polling booth then the voter is not voting in secret and electoral officials and the police are failing in their duty if this is not stopped.
I responded and again asked how and why an official of the Electoral Commission is seeking to change the law regarding the secret ballot without recourse to the public or parliament.
I also reminded Posner of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as incorporated into the founding charter of the United Nations, which refers to the right of all persons to partake in elections conducted by a secret ballot. This can be found under Article 21 – 3 of the declaration:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote.”
The secrecy of the ballot was raised whilst the House of Lords was considering amendments to the Elections Bill. There was unanimity across the chamber with respect to protecting the secrecy of the ballot and it should be noted that Lord Adonis (Labour) read into Hansard the provisions of secrecy included in the 1872 Act which have remained enshrined in UK law ever since.
This was followed by a ministerial letter from Kemi Badenoch MP expressing concern with regard to infringements of the secret ballot. The letter goes on to say:
“No elector should ever be subject to intimidation or coercion when voting. It is never acceptable for men to direct women how to vote – irrespective of any (outdated) cultural activities.”
The minister reiterates the legal foundation of the secret ballot and calls on the Electoral Commission and the police to advise how the rules relating to secrecy are to be enforced consistently.
This will require the Electoral Commission to issue unequivocal guidance to the police as to how protecting and maintaining the secrecy of the ballot must be paramount in a democratic election. This will require the Commission to withdraw the guidance their official circulated earlier and which I have quoted above. I would also expect that the Electoral Commission itself strives to protect the secrecy of the ballot; this means there is no reason for more than one person to be in a polling booth at any one time: unless this is a polling official assisting a blind, disabled, or illiterate, voter under the procedures in accordance with successive RP Acts.
A voter not being alone in a voting booth, is not voting in secret, therefore the law is being broken.
In view of the importance of this matter and the differing responses the Electoral Commission has given to the public and others, I have three times asked the following questions regarding the author of the faulty guidance that has been circulated:
“Was the (named) official acting on his behalf or that of the Electoral Commission in advising the police and Tower Hamlets as to his interpretation of the secret ballot?
Was this matter discussed at any level within the Electoral Commission?
If so, what body discussed this matter?
If this (named) official were acting alone and without recourse to any board or committee within the Electoral Commission, by what authority does he act to advise on a fundamental change to historic election law?”
It will be interesting to see if, at the third attempt, I obtain an answer to these questions. Those who know me, are aware that I can be persistent.
Importantly, I look forward to the police and the Electoral Commission working to ensure that the secret ballot remains secret.