Tom Hawthorn is Head of Electoral Policy at the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission takes the risk of electoral fraud seriously. Electoral fraud undermines democracy and weakens the United Kingdom’s strong tradition of free and fair elections. It takes away from individuals the right to vote as they wish, it distorts the results of elections and weakens the legitimacy of elected bodies, and it causes mistrust between communities.
In January 2014, we published our review of electoral fraud vulnerabilities which identified the local areas most at risk of allegations of fraud based on the data available and a range of measures for the police, administrators and the Commission itself to take forward to help address the risk of fraud. Our research, which included analysis of police data about cases of alleged electoral fraud, showed that proven cases of electoral fraud are thankfully rare and that when fraud is committed candidates and campaigners tend to be the most likely offenders while voters are the victims. Judge Richard Mawrey QC, who heard the election petition challenging the result of the May 2014 mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, made the same point in his judgment overturning the result of the election last April.
Before each set of elections the Electoral Commission monitors and supports the police forces and electoral administrators who are responsible for preventing and detecting electoral fraud locally. For example, we helped the College of Policing develop new Authorised Professional Practice on policing elections and we are providing all police forces with pocket guides to make sure that officers on patrol on polling day can understand and spot electoral fraud; we provide resources for electoral administrators to use to raise awareness of how to spot electoral fraud and how to report it; we have also developed a non-statutory Code of Conduct for Campaigners, which we produced following consultation with political parties and others and that we expect campaigners to follow, highlighting breaches to parties.
We also focus our support and monitoring work in areas where there has been a history of allegations of electoral fraud and where the risk of further allegations arising is higher. Electoral administrators and police forces in these areas have significant experience of preventing and detecting electoral fraud, and they work harder to minimise the risk of allegations arising.
Ultimately, however, electoral fraud is a crime. So it is important that anyone with evidence of fraud reports it to the police immediately. We also know that some people can be unsure about contacting the police directly, so we are repeating the campaign we ran with Crimestoppers before the General Election last year, to make sure voters know that they can report any concerns they have without giving their details to the police. The police take allegations of electoral fraud seriously, and where there is enough evidence to support prosecution the courts have imposed significant deterrent sentences on those found guilty of fraud.
Our research on electoral fraud didn’t stop with the publication of our review in 2014. We followed up in January last year with important research on electoral fraud vulnerabilities in British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, responding to significant concerns highlighted during our review about whether voters from these communities are able to exercise their right to vote and participate in elections on the same basis as other voters in the UK. We published two research reports looking at the views of voters and the experience of campaigners in British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, which highlighted a mix of contextual, cultural and electoral process factors that may create electoral fraud vulnerabilities.
We also welcomed the review of electoral fraud launched last summer by the Government’s Anti-corruption Tsar, Sir Eric Pickles. We hope that Sir Eric’s conclusions and recommendations to the UK Government will be published soon, and we continue to press the Government to respond to the main recommendation from our 2014 review that voters at polling stations in Great Britain should show proof of their identity, as they already do in Northern Ireland. It is now more than two years since we made our recommendation, and last year we published more details of how a photographic identification scheme could work in Great Britain.
We also want the UK and Scottish governments to give the green light to allow the Law Commissions to proceed with their important project to update and simplify the UK’s complex and fragmented framework of electoral law. This will include essential changes to update the definition of electoral fraud offences to make sure they are still workable in the 21st century, and to reform the complicated and inaccessible process of challenging elections in the UK.
Finally, we can’t stress strongly enough that anyone who has evidence of electoral fraud taking place should feel confident to report it, either directly to the police or anonymously through Crimestoppers, as quickly as possible. Even one case of fraud is unacceptable, and the police need your help to make sure it is identified and punished.