If you’ve noticed the Electoral Commission lately, it most likely came up in relation to the ongoing retrospective battles over the EU referendum. It is certainly peculiar, to say the least, that the Commission investigates allegations of co-ordination between two Leave campaign groups, but refuses to investigate Priti Patel’s reasonable concerns about various Remain campaigns doing the same thing. As the Daily Telegraph has pointed out, such decisions threaten the organisation’s crucial reputation for balance – not helped by its Chairman and several other board members openly criticising Brexit, which is hardly likely to inspire confidence among Leave voters.
There are other reasons to be concerned about the Commission, however. Never thought of in quango-land as a particularly effective body, its responsibilities have grown in recent years just as the internal and external threats to the integrity of our elections have intensified, and it does not appear to have upped its game in response.
New legislation like the Lobbying Act 2014 gave it complex new rules to oversee, and the ensuing confusion led to a flurry of insufficiently clear advice, patchy implementation, and unmerited worry for a variety of entirely legitimate organisations active in public policy.
Meanwhile, the issue of postal vote fraud remains largely unaddressed, despite growing public concern about the issue and vast numbers of postal vote registrations. As Peter Golds has recounted on this site, the Commission failed miserably to detect – or, even when warned, to take seriously, still less prevent – the now infamous plague of electoral fraud which beset Tower Hamlets. That scandal was exposed thanks to the dedication of brave campaigners, not the regulator, which spent years underplaying the issue and which has yet to fully explain how it got the case so wrong.
There have been some improvements. For example, in 2014 the Commission rightly (if belatedly) recommended trials of modest voter ID checks at polling stations to secure the ballot. But what happened when those trials began at this year’s local elections? Various people falsely alleged that the trials were partisan, even racist, voter suppression by the Government – and yet the Electoral Commission, which had proposed them and should have been defending its proposal, was practically silent in response. The body responsible for maintaining the integrity and reputation of the electoral system failed even to stand up for its own measures intended to improve that very integrity and reputation.
We all know that various democracies in the West are under threat from abroad, particularly from Russia. Coming in addition to all the routine domestic challenges a country faces in running free and fair ballots, that is a serious threat which even countries which are forewarned, forearmed and equipped with capable defenders find it hard to defend against. If, as seems to be the case, the British Electoral Commission struggles to deal with its day-to-day responsibilities, how certain can we be that it is sufficiently robust and capable to defend our democracy against deliberate and well-resourced attacks by a hostile power like the Kremlin?