Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  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.

  125. When?
  (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 says—secrecy". 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."

Mr Winnick

  126. What is the name of the person?
  (Professor Blackburn) James Rusbridger.

  127. He is a great expert in detecting all these conspiracies.
  (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 about, surely?
  (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 impersonation—and you do get a little bit of it in Northern Ireland—this 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 practice.

  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.

Mr Winnick

  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 destroyed?
  (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.

Mr Linton

  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.

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