Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
TUESDAY 2 JUNE 1998
120. Because the ballot papers are franked,
they have all got numbers.
(Dr Butler) You cannot look at the ballot papers except
under the conditions of a scrutiny.
121. So where do the ballot papers go?
(Dr Butler) They used to be in the Victoria Tower.
They have to be kept for a year and a day after the election.
122. Those who might wish to look at ballot
papers are only located a hundred yards down the Embankment.
(Dr Butler) You are not allowed to look at ballot
papers except under judicial order of scrutiny, I think I am right.
(Professor Blackburn) In law.
Mr Winnick: Is there any evidence of abuse?
123. I just want to stick with this point for
a moment, Professor Blackburn. Do you agree that the state could
discover this in limited circumstances like Northern Ireland or
if the Communists were doing rather well in a particular area
as they did in the past, or if for example a racist candidate
was doing very well in a particular area?
(Professor Blackburn) What we are talking about here
is there has never been a secret ballot in this country in the
sense that when you are given a ballot paper by the electoral
official your electoral registration number is put down on the
counterfoil. That means it is conceivable to match the two up
and to find out exactly how you voted. At the count of course
votes for each individual party are put in a neat pile. There
are all the people who voted for this party and there are all
the people who voted for that party. After the count they are
taken away and kept for year at Hayes in Middlesex and housed
there. The information is there. It is illegal to do that matching
of course, except under a court order.
124. But it could in theory be done?
(Professor Blackburn) Well, yes, and of course there
have been public claims made that it has been done.
(Professor Blackburn) It may or may not have ever
happened. But there is a public perception that it could. If people
feel inhibited about how they exercise their vote because they
think that it might be discovered how they voted and used against
them at some point in the future then that is clearly a breach
of a secret ballot. That electoral officials at the polling station
quite blatantly take down a voter's personal registration number
and put it on the counterfoil they retain is quite extraordinary
to most people and rather creepy. Just a few weeks ago in The
Guardian of 9 May there was a complaint about it in a letter
to the editor: "Having recently become a British citizen,
I voted this week for the first time. I was shocked to discover
that my polling number was written on the counterfoil of my ballot.
Since each ballot paper is numbered, this allows my vote to be
identified. I had always believed the Secret Ballot Act provided
precisely what it sayssecrecy". That letter reminded
me to dig out some of the correspondence I had read on the same
matter in the newspapers around the time of the 1992 General Election.
There were then several complaints, one of which was from James
Rusbridger who claimed in a letter to The Independent on
16 April, though without offering any evidence, that: "Over
the years, it has been customary for Special Branch to be given
access to the ballot papers of extreme candidates (Sinn Fein,
Communists, National Front), and these voters' names are then
passed to M15 for inclusion on their files of subversives."
126. What is the name of the person?
(Professor Blackburn) James Rusbridger.
127. He is a great expert in detecting all these
(Professor Blackburn) It may or may not be true. It
may be a flight of fantasy and there is no evidence given. There
are others who have made similar claims. The matter was studied
in a joint report in 1996 by Liberty and the Electoral Reform
Society called Ballot Secrecy.
128. Is there any legitimate advantage in continuing
to frank ballot papers?
(Dr Butler) They are devices. Both of these are things
that go back to the Ballot Act of 1872. I have no brief for it
but the intentions were perfectly sensible and honourable that
you could check back in the scrutiny about what had happened.
There has only been one real full-scale scrutiny since 1918, which
was in North East Derbyshire in 1922. The next nearest to a scrutiny
we had was in Winchester where they checked how the 55 non-stamped
ballot papers went. That was done in the process of the count
and they were pulled out. You get these paranoid scares at every
election. There has never been an election I have seen without
somebody writing, somebody protesting, but the law is strict.
I have never seen any evidence. Maybe MI5 do things but I have
never seen any evidence.
129. We accept that point but is there any advantage
nowadays in franking ballot papers?
(Dr Butler) The advantage in theory is that it does
mean a scrutiny is possible. I think the amount of suspicion aroused
is not really worth it. Other countries have what are accepted
as secret ballots without this sort of device for checking back.
It seemed sensible at the time and it does not do any harm but
if people wanted to get rid of it, it would not open the door
to massive fraud.
130. That is something you are relatively agreed
(Professor Blackburn) Yes. My view is that the practice
of recording a voter's registration number or other personal details
on the ballot paper counterfoil should be done away with. The
ballot should be completely secret. There are no overriding administrative
reasons existing at present why one's personal number should be
recorded on the counterfoil.
131. So you are both agreed. Dr Butler does
not feel as strongly about it as you do but you are both agreed?
(Dr Butler) I do not object to it in any way. If it
worries people you can have a scrutiny and it is a real safeguard
and has been used in one or two disputed local elections. If it
is a question of impersonationand you do get a little bit
of it in Northern Irelandthis is a safeguard where you
can pull out the wrong ballot paper in a hypothetical petition
or legal action subsequently.
(Professor Blackburn) It is an inefficient legal mechanism
to deal with voter impersonation if that is what is behind this
132. How would you deal with voter impersonation?
I think we should call it impersonation rather than personation
in the interests of clarity.
(Professor Blackburn) This is not a problem on mainland
Britain anyway but the most obvious way forward would be that
people produce identification.
133. I am told that in Sunderland lots of foreign
students voted this time because their landladies had put them
on the register and registration cards came through the door so
many of them thought they were entitled to vote, some of the European
ones apparently, Japanese, all sorts, so I am told.
(Dr Butler) I am sure there are many more things than
we know about, small infringements. I do not think they invalidate
election results in any significant degree but impersonation was
a major anxiety in 1872 and that is why we have these procedures.
134. But they are supposed to be destroyed,
are they not?
(Dr Butler) Ballot papers are destroyed after a year
and a day.
135. Is it a year and a day?
(Dr Butler) I think that is the law.
136. Is there any evidence that they are not
(Dr Butler) None of which I am aware.
137. Would you be reasonably satisfied that
they are actually destroyed or would you have doubts in your mind?
(Professor Blackburn) I have no evidence that the
law is not being absolutely complied with. But there is a public
perception that it could happen.
138. Would it actually be illegal if ballot
papers were examined outside scrutiny or scrutiny was conducted
without it being publicly known?
(Professor Blackburn) I think that must be the case.
139. If these allegations were true that MI5
had looked at ballot papers they would be breaking the law?
(Professor Blackburn) Yes.