Select Committee on Home Affairs Fourth Report



94. Witnesses to the inquiry were confident that there was relatively little fraud in elections in England, Scotland and Wales. Dr Butler for example suggested that "By world standards British elections are honestly and economically conducted. There are no great scandals ... waiting to be exposed".[215] The Conservative Party submission noted that "Our present system of voting is recognised world wide for its fairness and lack of electoral corruption".[216] Points of controversy about fairness in the system relate more to issues of party funding and expenditure than to the process of elections themselves.

95. Nevertheless, this situation cannot be taken for granted, and eternal vigilance must be shown if things are to stay that way. There are some points of limited concern which were raised, and which we now examine.

Abuse of proxy and postal voting

96. We have already discussed above the importance of having in place a system which allows people to obtain an absent vote, in order to cope with a variety of circumstances in which they might find it difficult to attend a polling station in person. We have also proposed that the qualifications and deadlines for obtaining such a vote should be eased. A number of witnesses however spoke of anecdotal evidence of abuse of the procedures for obtaining and casting proxy or postal votes.

97. What is at issue here is whether the system is being abused not by the obtaining of an absent vote by someone who is not entitled to it, but by people manipulating genuinely-entitled electors to obtain an absent vote and to cast it in a particular way. The danger is that people have gone out of their way to find voters who may wish to vote by post or—more particularly, proxy—and then to help such voters to apply for such a vote; the person can then seek to influence the voter to nominate them as their proxy (or let them help in casting the postal vote). This has been dubbed 'proxy farming', or even 'granny farming' because elderly occupants of a residential home can be prime targets for such an abuse. Examples or possible examples of this abuse were cited by Mr Brian Sedgemore MP in relation to a 1996 local election in Hackney[217] and concern was expressed also by the AEA.[218]

98. In response to Mr Sedgemore's comments in the House the Minister (Mr George Howarth MP) stated that "There is no recent evidence that the abuse of proxy voting is widespread" and noted that the relevant application forms had been amended in 1994. He accepted however that there had been allegations of irregularities at St Ives in 1992, Brighton in 1993, Burnley in 1994, and Cynon Valley in 1995.[219] We have no firm evidence to suggest that abuse of the absent voting system by people fraudulently influencing how such votes are obtained and cast is widespread. Nevertheless, our feeling from the evidence received is that the system may be vulnerable to abuse, or may be being abused, more than is generally understood. We recommend that the Home Office and returning officers conduct research, on a sample basis, into whether absent voters at a recent (or a forthcoming) election were satisfied that they were able to cast their vote free from any improper outside influence, and also into the question of delivery of the ballot papers once completed.

Impersonation and vote tracing

99. Anecdotal evidence also exists that there is a certain measure of fraud in the form of impersonation[220] of registered voters at polling stations. In Great Britain, prospective voters are not required to provide proof of identity to establish that they are in reality the person listed on the register they are claiming to be. The presiding officer may, if doubtful about the person's identity or if requested to do so by a candidate's agents, only put two specific questions, set out in the Election Rules, asking the person to confirm that s/he is the person registered and to confirm that s/he has not already voted,[221] though we understand that no record is kept as to how frequently such questions are in fact asked.[222]

100. The position is different in Northern Ireland, where traditionally there has been greater evidence of impersonation at elections. Voters there have to provide one of a number of specified documents in order to establish their identity before being given a ballot paper. This does not solve all the problems which can arise and there are calls both for additional measures to be taken and for the list of permissible documents to be revised.[223]

101. Clearly there are a number of measures which could be taken, including those in operation in Northern Ireland, if impersonation were thought to be a serious problem. Most witnesses however did not think this was the case. Neither Dr Butler nor Professor Blackburn had evidence that impersonation was a major issue in elections in Great Britain (though Professor Blackburn appeared less opposed to requiring voters to provide identification than Dr Butler).[224] SOLACE noted that proven instances of impersonation were rare, and that "recent incidents in England have almost entirely related to people who moved into an area after the effective date for electoral registration ... and tried to vote in the name of the previous occupant of their property".[225] They took the view that—although some potential absurdities might be avoided if presiding officers had greater powers[226]—"... one cannot make the process of cross-examination too elaborate, granted that the majority of people come with their poll cards and there is no practical difficulty in identifying who they are and no expectation of fraud in the overwhelming majority of cases. We must ensure that we do not make the procedures so secure that it is impossible to run the election on the day".[227]

102. We broadly agree that there is at present no great problem with impersonation in British elections outside Northern Ireland, and we do not see a need to introduce any additional requirements to prove identity before being given a ballot paper. We note a suggestion made by the Electoral Reform Society and Liberty that returning officers, since they are familiar with local circumstances and the actual conduct of elections, might have a power to initiate an election petition; at present only aggrieved candidates or electors may do so, and it may be unrealistic to expect such people to risk the costs involved solely out of a sense of public duty.[228]

103. One of the existing measures in place to discourage and to address impersonation is the vote tracing mechanism. Because the mechanism to some extent breaches the principle of ballot secrecy, and because the problem it seeks to address is—as we have seen—generally thought to be very minor, it has been argued by some that it should be discontinued.

104. The system is designed to enable a fraudulently cast ballot paper to be identified and discounted and, if appropriate, to be replaced by a valid vote. To achieve this, the electoral registration number of the voter is noted on the counterfoil of the ballot paper. Since the ballot paper number is recorded both on the paper itself and the counterfoil, it becomes possible to trace the ballot paper submitted by a particular voter by locating the counterfoil on which the voter's registration number has been written, from which the number of the ballot paper issued to that person can be found and thus the ballot paper itself identified. The counterfoils and ballot papers are secured and stored after the close of the ballot and may by law only be opened, so as to enable the vote tracing to be operated, pursuant to an order from an electoral court pursuant to a complaint. A court may order this if it is satisfied that a vote has been fraudulently cast (whether because of a case of impersonation or, potentially, because of bribery), and if it thinks appropriate because the result of the election could be affected. The vote, once identified, can then be subtracted from the declared total. In certain circumstances it is also possible for the discounted vote to be replaced by a valid vote. If a registered voter has found, on attempting to cast a vote, that a vote has already been cast in their name, the presiding officer may give to him or her a fresh ballot paper of a different colour, which is stored separately (a 'tendered' vote). It is not counted in the main count, but if an election court so orders, it may be subsequently counted in place of a disallowed vote.

105. A recent report on this issue by the Electoral Reform Society and Liberty indicated no case of the full vote tracing procedure being used since 1911 at a national election, though it has occasionally come into play at local elections because the majorities at such elections are very much smaller.[229] This lack of use is not surprising; vote tracing is likely to arise only in a rare combination of circumstances, namely where the result of an election is extremely close, a case of impersonation (or bribery) can be proved, and one of the parties to the election is prepared to risk the expense of an election court to challenge the result.

106. The issue is consistently raised—often following a General Election—as to whether this system is an unreasonable breach of the fundamental principle that the ballot should be secret. It has been alleged, although without hard evidence, that the process has been abused by the security services in order to identify potential subversives.[230] In written evidence to the Committee, the Minister has stated "In practice, there are stringent statutory controls on the sealing and storage of ballot papers and counterfoils after the election and I am not aware of any proven cases of unauthorised search of the stored documents. I know of course of the claims that have been made of systematic abuse on the part of the security services, but no evidence has been produced to support these claims, which have been made in various books produced by former security officers and where it could be thought there was a commercial incentive to embroider the truth, or even to lie outright".[231]

107. Of course this statement by the Minister does not rule out the possibility that the system has been abused. It might also be argued that, given how rarely the vote tracing mechanism appears to have been used, it is anyway unnecessary and could profitably be ended. Nevertheless, it is likely that it forms at least a small deterrent to would-be impersonators.[232] The joint study of the issue by the Electoral Reform Society and by Liberty failed to produce an agreed view on the issue. Liberty argued that the system played little part in the prevention of impersonation, which should be addressed by other means, and that concerns about possible abuse of the system by state agencies outweighed the other considerations; they therefore concluded that the system should be abandoned. We concur with Liberty's view.[233]

108. The possibility has been suggested that 'tendered' votes should be counted, since otherwise genuine voters—assuming the second person to present themselves as the person named on the register is the more likely to be the real one—become effectively disenfranchised.[234] We see some merit in this idea but there is clearly the danger that it could lead to greater abuse: persons could be tempted to encourage friends intending to vote the same way to impersonate them in the knowledge that they could still vote themselves, thereby casting two effective votes for their chosen candidate. Indeed such a system could allow a person who had already validly voted to present him or herself again later in the day and to obtain a second vote by claiming that the first voter had been an impostor.

Ballot papers

109. A further security mechanism currently in place, dating from the Ballot Act 1872, is designed to prevent a different form of fraud, namely counterfeit ballot papers.[235] To prevent a ballot box being filled with votes marked on apparently genuine—but in fact fraudulent—ballot papers, each ballot paper is perforated with an 'official mark' as it is handed to an elector by the polling clerk. The official mark is kept secret until polling day. Any ballot paper identified at the count as not having the official mark will be rejected. In practice, between two and three thousand ballot papers have not been counted for this reason at recent General Elections.[236]

110. In modern circumstances it is generally thought that a failure by a ballot paper to carry the official mark will reflect human error by the polling staff rather than any deliberate attempt at fraud.[237] The principal effect of not counting unmarked ballot papers thus becomes the effective disenfranchisement of genuine voters. Furthermore, the benefits may be illusory, since with modern printing technology it would probably be relatively straightforward for would-be fraudsters—having learned the nature of the official mark early on polling day—to reproduce the mark on quickly printed ballot papers for use later in the day. The non-counting of a number of ballot papers could affect the result of a contest and thereby cause an expensive re-run of the election.[238] Suggestions have therefore been made that the official marking of ballot papers under this system should be ended.[239]

111. The main objection to ending the marking system is that it could reduce the safeguards against fraud. While there may be very little or no evidence of this kind of fraud at present, this may in part be precisely because the system is effective and a deterrent. Alternative suggestions made to us have been that the official ballot papers should be watermarked or laser coded in some way to show their genuine status, though we were also told that one of the advantages of the present system is that it is very easy, and therefore a quick process, to spot an unmarked paper, which might not be the case with some of the alternative methods.[240] The Conservative and Liberal Democrats in their written submissions were broadly sympathetic to modernisation in this area, provided the system remained reliable.[241] We consider that there should continue to be some form of mark or identifier on ballot papers to enable a false paper to be readily identified. However, we regard the physical application of a mark to each such paper at the polling station as unsatisfactory, given how easily it can be accidentally omitted, leading to the effective deprivation of a valid vote. We therefore recommend that the Home Office and the electoral administrators identify and introduce a more up to date and simpler method than the present official mark.

215  King-Hall Paper No. 5, p. 6. Back

216  Appendix 8, section 5. Back

217  Official Report 21 May 1997 col. 671. Back

218  Q 303; Mr Robert McCartney MP referred to cases in Northern Ireland of people who had died or moved being left on the register and applications being made for absent votes in their name, and to cases involving regular non-voters having applications for a postal vote sent in without their knowledge, with the ballot paper being sent to a different address (see List of unprinted memoranda). Back

219  Official Report 21 May 1997, cols 675-6. Back

220  The offence of voting in the name of another person is technically, for historical reasons, known as 'personation' rather than the rather clearer description 'impersonation' used in this Report. Back

221  Representation of the People Act 1983, Schedule 1 paragraph 35(i)(a). Back

222  Information supplied by the AEA. Back

223  See submission by Mr Robert McCartney MP (United Kingdom Unionist Party) to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland's review of electoral fraud) (see List of unprinted memoranda). Back

224  QQ 134-136 and 145. Back

225  Appendix 6. Back

226  An instance given was where the person asking for a vote was clearly under age; see Q 341. Back

227  Q 341. Back

228  Ballot Secrecy (ERS/Liberty, 1997) para 6.4. Back

229  Ballot Secrecy (ERS/Liberty, 1997) paras 3.2.9-3.2.12. Back

230  See QQ 126-128 and Appendix 2, section 8; and (appendices 4 and 5) to the Electoral Reform Society/Liberty report Ballot Secrecy (1997). Back

231  See footnote to Q 590. Back

232  Though it should be noted that the mechanism can only lead to a vote cast by an impersonator being disallowed-it does not help to identify the impersonator. Back

233  Ballot Secrecy (Electoral Reform Society/Liberty, 1997) section 8. Back

234  Appendix 1 para 8.43; see also Ballot Secrecy (ERS/Liberty, 1997) para 7.17. Back

235  Home Office memorandum (Appendix 1 para 8.32f.). Back

236  Ibid., Table 9. Back

237  See SOLACE, Appendix 6; Home Office, Appendix 1 para 8.41. Back

238  This happened at the Winchester result in the 1997 General Election. Back

239  AEA manifesto and Q 353. Back

240  Appendix 1 para 8.42. Back

241  Appendix 8 (Conservative Party); Appendix 9 (Liberal Democrats). Back

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