By Paul Goodman
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The best joke of the London Mayoral election count – with its several-hour delay – came from the Evening Standard's Joe Murphy. "Let's put Tower Hamlets in charge of count next time," he tweeted. "They'll get it done the day before." The second best was: "We have the result from Tower Hamlets. Boris: 49% – Ken: 101%." But had Mr Livingstone won we would be laughing on the other side of our faces. Ministers must not be allowed to park the problem of tackling voter fraud just because he didn't.
It is largely South Asian in practice. Very simply, customs have been imported from countries that aren't liberal democracies, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, and which have no tradition of free and fair elections. Voting often takes place on the basis of clan loyalty rather than individual choice, and what matters is winning the contest, not simultaenously obeying its rules. There are three main problems: registering voters improperly, impersonating voters at the polls, and thuggery and intimidation outside them.
There have been some horrendous court cases involving councillors from both main parties – see here and here, for example. While presiding over the latter trial – in which six Labour councillors in Birmingham were found guilty of postal voting fraud – Judge Richard Mawrey said that Britain was tolerating levels of corruption “that would disgrace a banana republic”. He warned that that there were no robust systems in place to detect or prevent postal voting fraud at the general election. "Until there are, fraud will continue unabated," he added.
Judge Mawrey condemned the Government for refusing to change the system. That was in 2005, four years after the introduction of postal voting on demand – a ploy crafted by Labour to make it easier for their supporters to vote. He also slammed the inability of Returning Officers to investigate fraud; defective procedures for registering voters; provision for ballots to be sent to addresses different from the registered voter; the lack of means of verifying the identity of witnesses, and the absence of laws regarding the handling of postal ballots by third parties.
The Electoral Registration Act of 2006 was meant to address the problems that the Representation of the People Act 2000 had introduced. But Judge Mawrey was back in 2008: “Despite the 2006 Act,” the judge said, “the opportunities for easy and effective electoral fraud remain substantially as they were [in] 2005.” The Electoral Commission warned of the dangers of fraud before the last election. This brings us to Tower Hamlets, where Labour is battling for control with supporters of Lutfur Rahman, the independent directly-elected Mayor.
Rahman, who is allegedly backed by the Islamic Forum of Europe, was certainly supported by Mr Livingstone, who broke party rules to campaign for the Tower Hamlets Mayor in 2010. Labour took fright after losing a council by-election and made fraud-related complaints to the Electoral Commission. The Commission called in the police. An Evening Standard investigation had already found evidence of malpractice in Tower Hamlets. So did City A.M. So did the Independent in 2010. (At the time, Labour was the subject of complaints.)
As Harry Phibbs reported on the site, a police officer was put on duty outside every borough polling station last week. (This didn't seem to quell all the borough's troubles: a Green candidate said that a Respect worker threatened to "punch his lights out".) Tower Hamlets claims that it has conducted checks on voters and removed names from the register, arguing that the register "changes by up to 20 per cent a month because we have a population that is highly mobile".
Harry wrote that sometimes the cause of a large number of people registering at an address is overcrowding and that sometimes it isn't, but that in the last resort "fraud will only be stopped when those running the Council's Electoral Services Department have the will to stop it." He also pointed out that the official council-funded newspapers, East End Life, "adds cheerfully that the Electoral Commission has 'no investigatory powers'."
There is certainly an institutional problem. The Commission indeed has no investigatory powers – Harry calls it "a useless quango" – and the police are not usually well versed in electoral law: the two, consequently, sometimes play pass-the-parcel with fraud claims. However, nearly everyone seems to agree that a clean-up is urgently required. Jenny Watson, the Commission's Chairman, has called for photo identification to be demanded at all polling stations in a bid to stop voter fraud.
Interestingly, Abjol Miah, the national chair of Respect, has been quoted as saying that the postal vote on demand system "is wide open to fraud and to voter intimidation…postal votes on demand effectively means the end to the secret ballot". Grant Shapps and our old friend, Judge Mawrey, have also weighed in. The Coalition Agreement committed the Government to "speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration", and laws to put this in place should be in place for the 2015 election.
However, the Government's bar has been set low. There is no determined effort to make the prevention of fraud – rather than higher turnout – the touchstone of the electoral system. Ministers could do this by legislating to return to the pre-2000 dispensation whereby postal voting was the exception rather than the rule. There has been pressure on the Conservative front bench to do so since before the 2010 election – see my article on this site here – but no concerted effort has been forthcoming.
Ministers are apparently concerned that returning the status quo ante 2000 could unfairly affect older voters. But the integrity of the system must surely come first. One of the experts in this area is the excellent Conservative councillor Peter Golds, who has first-hand experience of politics in Tower Hamlets and had made frequent complaints to the Electoral Commission. In his words, "It is ludicrous that I have to produce photo ID to attend a count or borrow a library book, but can walk into a polling station and be given a ballot paper."
"The point of the 1872 Ballot Act was to allow citizens to commit a public act in private. Now they undertake a private act in public. If there are no inspectors on trains then there is no evidence of fare dodging. If there are no store detectives, then there is no evidence of shop lifting. If the police do not robustly investigate allegations then the absurd quango that is the electoral commission can say all is well." Councillor Golds makes the following seven recommendations and I cannot improve on them:
- Review postal votes on demand.
- Make it illegal for anybody to collect ballot papers
- Institute Individual Voter Registration.
- Introduce the system that was put into place in Northern Ireland to prevent personation – in other words, the production of I.D when voting.
- Examine the powers and personnel of the Electoral Commission. It needs somebody like Judge Mawrey, who knows and understands electoral fraud.
- Ensure the police act on allegations.