Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Seventh Report

5 Electoral Security

Identity verification

24. Evidence that we received highlighted that some people are concerned that all-postal voting will lead to increased incidences of electoral fraud, in particular 'personation', where a ballot paper is completed and returned by someone other than the elector. Lord Greaves, a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords, and Richard Price QC, of the HS Chapman Society, are particularly concerned:

Lord Greaves: "I think that the level of what I would call benign fraud, not political parties or candidates rigging the election but people voting for other members of their family because they think it is a good thing to do, which is clearly against the law and wrong, is probably a lot higher than people imagine."[24]

Richard Price: "I think our major concern with all-postal voting is the susceptibility of the system to widespread electoral fraud for the simple reason that you throw out into an electoral area, however big it may be, all the ballot papers for everybody on the register, and inevitably a significant proportion of the people on the register, even with a rolling register, will have disappeared, they will have moved away, they will be on holiday, and therefore there will be, who knows, 10 per cent, 20 per cent in some areas, perhaps more, of ballot papers just floating about with nobody to pick them up, except perhaps unscrupulous people, who find them in places where they are delivered, such as old people's homes, university halls of residence, wherever it may be, and a whole wad of ballot papers are there for the grabbing. And I am afraid to say that there are unscrupulous people out there who would take advantage of that."[25]

25. Some witnesses have suggested that houses in multiple occupation present the greatest security threat to postal voting. The Green Party is particularly concerned about the frequently high-turnover of electors in such properties:

"As there is no requirement to remove yourself from the Electoral Register when you leave an address, a great many ballot papers were sent out to departed voters. A majority of these are in HMOs (most with a single letterbox) where there is a high tenant turnover, and consequently these papers are available to anyone unscrupulous enough to make use of them. The risk in this situation is far greater than with personal voting, and with very little chance of the discovery of any fraud."[26]

Malcolm Dumper, Executive Director of the Association of Electoral Administrators holds a similar view:

"A significant concern from my perspective, being a practitioner, would be the delivery of postal votes to houses in multiple occupation. […]. You do not know whether it is actually going to go to the person who is named as the recipient on the postal vote envelope. If you take my own local authority, for example, where we have two or three wards that have a high student population, 20,000 spread over two or three wards, many of these in houses in multiple occupation, at times 16 postal vote envelopes going through one letterbox, it is very difficult to know whether the recipient is actually going to get that."[27]

26. Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, believes that measures can be taken to ensure the security of postal votes delivered to houses in multiple occupation:

"In some of the pilots that have already taken place we have learned quite a few lessons. That is one of the benefits of piloting. In Brighton and Hove the returning officers there had a particular team that went around to large establishments, student accommodation, houses in multiple occupation and so forth, hand delivering, making sure that they identified the particular voter if they were available and so forth, and that was a much more proactive measure of getting the ballot paper to the person in houses in multiple occupation. We have suggested that regional returning officers look at that best practice and take that up and that is something that we have put in the policy paper circulated to the returning officers so that there is good practice there that can be followed and built upon."[28]

Sam Younger of the Electoral Commission agrees;

"I would certainly share the confidence that the individual regional returning officers and returning officers and their staff are looking hard at how they best cope with this problem. I think Malcolm [Dumper of the Association of Electoral Administrators] would probably say there is a resource problem here in how you do it. Because actually there is certainly a way of operating effectively with homes of multiple occupation if you actually do, as it were, physical delivery on behalf of the electoral officer yourself; the question is issues of scale in that."[29]

Peter Viggers MP, responding on 19 April 2004 to oral questions in the House of Commons on behalf of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission stated that:

"The security of postal ballot paper delivery, including delivery to houses in multiple occupation, has been discussed by the Commission on several occasions. Those have included meetings with the Parliamentary Parties Panel, the Local Government Association and the regional returning officers for the European parliamentary elections. […]. In order to minimise the risk of fraud in relation to postal votes, the commission is developing a series of tools for use by local administrators, including best practice guidance on delivery to multiple occupation households. The guidance is planned for publication later this year and will take on board the experience of the pilot schemes planned for June."[30]

Sam Younger added that the Electoral Commission have recommended that Returning Officers have the ability to 'opt out' of all-postal voting schemes if they have a large number of multiple occupation properties within their area;

"Indeed, I think it is fair to say, just to note, that, on the recommendation we made to say that all-postal voting should become the norm, we put a caveat to say that it was open to a returning officer not to do so, given good reasons, and I think one reason might be if you were in a ward, for example, in an area of a local authority that had a very, very high quotient of, say, student population in multiple residences. That might be one reason. I would not want to belittle the importance of the problem, but I think there are ways around it, but part of the way round it rests on the proper funding of electoral operations and I think it is fair to say that we have, as it were, underfunded our democratic processes in the past and I hope we do not do so in the future."[31]

27. MORI research for the Electoral Commission demonstrates that members of the public are not convinced that all-postal voting is safe from fraud and abuse, as highlighted in Figure Four:

28. Despite these concerns, several witnesses told us that in their opinions, all-postal voting posed no greater security risk than conventional polling stations:

Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission: "[…] the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely - because I do not think attempts to defraud the system will ever be eliminated entirely: they were there in the conventional system - but can be coped with."[32]

John Pitt, Corporate Director, Wakefield Council: "On a general issue around the security of elections, I think everybody involved in elections takes the issue of security extremely seriously, but, from a personal point of view, having been involved in elections now in three local authorities, I have found very, very few examples, if any serious examples, of misuse of the electoral system. I am aware that there are some and it does not mean we are blasé about it, but the issues surrounding security are perhaps less than a lot of people would think, and certainly, in terms of security, of course, traditional voting is not the most secure form of elections."[33]

Peter Watt, Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit, the Labour Party: "On the whole we do not think that postal voting is any more or less secure or prone to fraud than traditional forms of voting which themselves have an element of postal voting in them."[34]

29. However Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, recognises that the public may need reassurance:

"[…] when we look at all-postal voting or, indeed, any other method, I think we have to recognise that there are, as it were, the objective issues that are empirically based that need to be addressed. There is also a public confidence issue - which is not necessarily exactly the same thing - that needs to be addressed. We need to make sure there are measures in place, in a sense, to over-ensure."[35]

One of the measures aimed at ensuring security and preventing personation is use of a declaration of identity.

Declaration of identity

30. A postal voter at a conventional election is required to sign a 'declaration of identity' which must be witnessed with a second signature. If this declaration is not correctly completed, the ballot paper will be rejected. Past elections have revealed reluctance by electors to sign a document accompanying their ballot paper (in the same way that they object to a numbered ballot paper being issued). In Newcastle-upon-Tyne last year, over 6,000 out of 100,000 valid ballot papers were rejected because the elector had failed to sign the declaration properly.[36] Malcolm Dumper, Executive Director of the Association of Electoral Administrators told us:

"It is difficult to give you a percentage but the highest number of votes that are rejected at any election is because the declaration of identity has not been completed properly, and that is wrong when the ballot paper has been completed accurately. The person has clearly made their choice but the failure, first, to understand the process by the completion of the declaration of identity and, secondly, the need to get a third party involved does in fact invalidate a number of votes."[37]

31. Scope, the pan-disability organisation, has conducted detailed evaluations of local and national elections for over a decade as part of their Polls Apart campaign for accessible democracy. Ruth Scott, Scope's Campaigns Manager, explained what their research had revealed about witnessed declarations of identity:

"We feel that it adds an unnecessary additional layer of complexity to the voting process and does not add significantly to the security of the ballot. It is particularly problematic for disabled people and people who live alone or who are isolated. We have had a number of people responding to our surveys who said that they just could not find anybody who could verify who they were, which is not a reason why somebody should not be able to vote. We also think that making the system any more complicated than it already is when this matter as it stands is already very complicated for a number of disabled people, adding to that does not help. In fact actually providing a witness, having to have a real ballot witnessed does actually mean that many disabled people are going to have to show their ballot paper to somebody else which I think brings it then into some of the issues around coercion which we are also very concerned about in terms of postal voting."[38]

Scope are particularly worried about the ability of disabled voters to complete declarations of identity:

"[…] systems which require voters' signatures may be problematic for disabled people with co-ordination and other impairments. Those disabled people who live alone may experience greater problems than non-disabled people in securing witness signatures for declarations of identity forms. It is vital that in devising anti-fraud procedures that the needs of disabled voters are taken into account and that such systems do not inadvertently prevent disabled voters form exercising their democratic rights."[39]

32. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch are concerned that for those living alone, the need for a witnessed declaration of identity may make them more susceptible to pressure to vote in a particular way, or vote 'farming':

"[…] it could well be argued that those living alone or those who are infirm may well be susceptible to undue influence from the canvasser at the very moment they mark their ballot paper in the casting of their vote. This may be more applicable to those living alone, given the fact that, along with their ballot paper, they are required to submit a "Declaration of Identity" that must be signed and witnessed by another person. It should be acknowledged that those who live alone and require a witness in these circumstances may sometimes be present with the canvasser who arranged their postal vote whilst they mark the ballot paper."[40]

33. The Electoral Reform Society is also unconvinced that a witnessed declaration of identity adds much security to the voting process. They call for a security system based on the voter, with spot-checks to ensure reliability:

"[…] if you do have a witness's signature, that can equally be a squiggle against which there is nothing you can check the witness's signature. For that reason, we would not advocate going for a system in which you do need to have a witness's signature. That is why we think it is much more important to move to a system where the voter does not need to go to somebody else - for some voters that might be difficult - but where the voter can give some information that gives confirmation that it is the person to whom the vote was issued. But that is why we need to change the system of registration, so that it is possible to make a check and that spot-checks are done."[41]

34. The Electoral Commission takes a similar view. In oral evidence Sam Younger, Chairman, told us:

"We very much support the notion of dispensing with the witness signature on the declaration of identity, partly because people often fill it in wrongly; secondly, because, […], very few electoral registration officers actually check that signature when it comes in, so it is not really an effective fraud check anyway; and, thirdly, we believe it is positively more dangerous to security to invite a third party into an individual's casting of the vote."[42]

35. However the HS Chapman Society is extremely concerned by the proposal to dispense with the witnessed declaration of identity:

"The abolition of the requirement for a witness who knows the voter to verify the identity of the voter with a signature and an address is a passport to fraud which is made worse if a simple cross is allowed as a valid signature see Edgell -v- Glover 2003."[43]

Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords, agreed, arguing that declarations of identity provide a vital security check:

"I spent two weeks the summer before last sat in the town hall checking declarations of identity for four wards where we believed there had been massive postal vote fraud taking place. I have no doubt that was taking place at that time. The reason that we were able to really identify and prove to ourselves (although the Police seemed unable to investigate this properly) was that we were able to check these declarations of identity and we were able then to follow them back to the voters to find out exactly what had happened. We discovered that the voters had indeed signed the form and had it witnessed but they had never seen the ballot papers, and in other cases we were able to identify situations where certain individuals had witnessed over 100 postal votes each and many of those the electors, when we went back to them, said they had never seen. You can go back and do the forensic work on these things and find out exactly what happened and it is a very, very useful thing to happen, obviously not in every case but when you think there is serious fraud taking place it is a very useful thing."[44]

Councillor Suzanne Fletcher held a similar view:

"There was no declaration of identity in the Stockton on Tees pilot and I feel that was a significant factor in people filling in other peoples' ballot papers, and I do feel there does need to be a witness declaration of identity."[45]

36. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of pilot schemes has however led them to recommend "that the present declaration of identity should be replaced with simpler and more effective declaration, without a witness requirement, but not abandoned altogether."[46] This re-styled declaration has been termed a 'security statement', a form which the voter signs to confirm their identity.

37. This simpler system also comes in for criticism. Scope argue that many voters do not have the ability to complete forms without assistance. They estimate that 24% of adults in England have low, lower or very low literacy levels[47] and 1.5 million people have a learning impairment.[48] Their research suggests that such voters may be daunted by such forms:

"There were also major issues surrounding the relative complexity of postal voting as compared with polling stations where it is possible for voters to seek advice and help if they encounter difficulties. Filling in forms can be extremely daunting for people who find it hard to write or read official documents. One respondent told us "couldn't understand…very complicated" (disabled voter Middlesbrough)."[49]

Others question what security a voter's signature offers without a signature to compare it to. Local authorities hold no database of signatures except possibly for the signed 'A' form completed for Electoral Registration. Even with this form, without individual voter registration, only one signature per household is required so signatures cannot readily be cross-checked. Consequently, as Sam Younger suggested, few signatures on declarations of identity are checked unless a complaint is made. In this situation the Returning Officer would contact the elector (with or without the original ballot paper) to confirm that they had voted and the ballot paper was how they marked it.

38. Despite the reactive nature of the verification process, the Electoral Reform Society believe the requirement for a signature still acts as a deterrent to potential electoral fraudsters:

"You may argue - we would certainly argue - that a declaration of identity, where there is not a mechanism for checking the signature against another signature that is held against the register, is rather meaningless, but nevertheless it is a bit of a deterrent."[50]

Sam Younger argues that signature verification will only highlight potential fraud if conducted pro-actively, and this will require funding:

"[…] if we are to take seriously the checking of the incoming postal vote - the checking against the signature, the follow-up of possible occasions where the signature does not appear to the electoral registration officer to match - we must make sure - and whether this requires legislation or not I think is a question for the future - that electoral services, which have been traditionally in many parts of the country underfunded, are underpinned in a way that actually enables them to carry out the job."[51]

39. The Scottish National Party suggest that technology could be used to make verification of signatures easier, and more routine:

"With increased use of technology, the signatures of an application for a postal vote could be scanned and used as a checking mechanism at the point of ballot paper return. A mixture of spot checks and random sample audits would create more safeguards against electoral fraud."[52]

40. All-postal pilots have trialled several identification methods; the traditional witnessed declaration of identity, a security statement signed only by the elector, and no signatures required at all. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch do not think such a varied approach is helpful and argue for a consistent system:

"I notice in the pilots that have been held over the last year/year and a half there have been different approaches to this. In some cases it was continued with a witness identity system and in at least one there was a declaration of identity without a witness. I understand that the feelings were favouring the latter. I also know the Electoral Commission have asked us for help in trying to analyse ways of making these declarations as foolproof as possible. A lot of work still needs to be done on that in terms of signatures and forgeries. At the end of the day you have to come up with a system, trial it, and then agree a common system for everybody, because we certainly would not like to have to approach every inquiry and find there were different ways of declaring identities and identifying witnesses and identities. That would not be helpful at all."[53]

41. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of the different systems used in the pilots found that:

"[…] in terms of ease of use and convenience there has been very much a positive response from voters [to all-postal voting], although it has also been clear that the simplicity of use is related to the simplicity of the declarations one is required to make. When voters have been asked in those areas which have piloted no declaration of identity at all, that is the easiest to use for voters. The ones that have required a counter-signature get less high marks on that. Our view is that actually requiring no signature at all, although being easy to use for the voter, is a step too far in terms of taking a leg away from the security stool, but that the witness signature does not add sufficiently to the security in order to be something that is worth doing against the potential voter confusion."[54]

42. The Government had hoped to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendation to replace the witnessed declaration of identity with a simpler voter-signed security statement for the June elections. However security concerns raised in the House of Lords during debate on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill forced the Government to reinstate the requirement for a witnessed declaration of identity. The Minister told us in oral evidence:

"[…] the House of Lords insisted on retaining the declaration of identity, in other words where a witnessed signature has to verify the identity of the person casting their vote, the government decided that we need to concede on that particular point and we conceded amendments that were approved in the House of Commons last night. The June local and European elections will now have that witnessed signature declaration of identity within them. We did that reluctantly because of course that was against the advice of the Electoral Commission. […]. We do not feel that having that declaration of identity brings overriding harm to the general principle of all postal voting so we felt that was a concession we could put in. We will have to look at it again for future elections because the advice from the Electoral Commission is that if an individual is likely to fraudulently sign their own ballot paper then it does not take a massive step for them to also sign the counter signature as well. It may even be an inhibition to the fairest possible voting system in that it forces an individual to disclose to a third party that they intend to cast their vote. They have to share with another person the fact that they are intending to return a ballot paper by having a requirement for a counter signature. If an individual can cast their vote on their own without sharing that with somebody else then the Electoral Commission advise that would be a better arrangement. For the time being we will continue with that declaration of identity which is the current practice in the normal postal voting on demand arrangements."[55]

Individual voter registration

43. We received a lot of evidence calling for the implementation of individual voter registration. The current electoral register is based on households, and only one signature from a household is required to join the register. Witnesses, such as the Electoral Reform Society, believe that individual registration, requiring a signature from each elector, would make voter-signed declarations of identity much more valuable as security checks:

"[…] changes are needed in the electoral registration process to provide information for the validation of declarations of identity. This could be achieved by a shift to individual registration, in which each elector must provide a signature, rather than the present system in which one signature per household is considered sufficient." [56]

44. The Electoral Commission believe that individual registration must be implemented before all-postal voting is extended across the country. Sam Younger, Chairman of the Commission, told us;

"Individual registration, to me, is the key. I think it is fair to say we have been pressing government since we made the recommendation just about a year ago to say that we would see that as the priority now: to get that underpinning registration, to get individual registration on the road, because that is the critical part of giving comfort in the roll-out of all-postal voting."[57]

45. The Electoral Reform Society, HS Chapman Society and the Electoral Commission would like to see personal identifiers required as part of the individual registration process:

The Electoral Reform Society: "A further change could be to include dates of birth on the electoral register (but not on copies available for public inspection) and to require postal voters to give a date of birth on their declarations of identity."[58]

HS Chapman Society: "If you are going to introduce all-postal voting it would seem to us in the Society - and I think it would also seem to the Electoral Commission - that you have to link this to individual registration of voters, which is, we think, absolutely fundamental to starting to have a secure system. The whole concept of individual registration with proof of identity and some form of individual number, be it an NHS number or National Insurance number, whatever it may be, at least starts you off on the right lines."[59]

The Electoral Commission: "There are two key underpinning measures that are not there yet, have not been there in the pilots, which we believe are vital if the roll out of all-postal voting on the wider scale is to be robust. The absolutely critical one, there is a move from household to individual registration, with personal identifiers, including the individual voter's signature, against which a return postal vote can be checked." [60]

46. There appears to be little opposition to the move to individual voter registration. The Political Parties we took evidence from, are in favour:

The Scottish National Party: "Making people vote and encouraging them to vote is what is so important, and I think it is more important for people to engage with the democratic process because they want to and of their own volition, and one of the ways is by individual registration."[61]

The Conservative Party: "I think that we would favour a move to individual registration. Certainly we would have concerns about the extension of all postal voting without addressing some of the issues to do with security and confidentiality that we have concerns about at the moment so, yes, I think there would be greater security if you had individual registration."[62]

The Liberal Democrats: "[…] we are very keen if there is to be a major extension of postal voting that individual registration is something that has to come in first. We agree with the Electoral Commission on this."[63]

The Labour Party: "[…] the Labour Party is in favour of individual registration. We have some concerns about how quickly it is brought in. If it is brought in too rapidly we will lose people off the register in the early stages which will be of concern."[64]

47. The Electoral Commission warn that although the move to individual registration is in their view critical, the process will need careful management:

"[…] it is a messy business moving forward into different methods of voting. It takes a fair bit of time not just to get the primary legislation on the statute book that would bring individual registration but also to implement it, because one would want to implement it in a way that did not instantly mean large numbers of people off the electoral roll. We have some lessons we can learn on a move from household to individual registration because it is exactly what happened in Northern Ireland after the passage of the Electoral Fraud Act in 2002, so there is some experience to go on in that."[65]

48. The Electoral Commission believe that the transition to individual voting will provide a valuable opportunity to implement new practices to maintain and ensure the accuracy of the electoral register:

"I think we are well aware that if we move to individual registration, or assuming we do, particularly, but even with our existing system of registration, we actually need to do some cleverer operations, it seems to me, in making sure we have the right people on the register. Relying on an annual canvass and rolling registration, I think we would all accept is not enough. There needs to be a greater concentration on it, because the starting point of all this is the fullest and cleanest possible electoral register and I think there is more that could be done in that area."[66]

The Government argue that the electoral register is the most accurate it has ever been. The Minister, Chris Leslie MP told us:

"We have the best electoral registers that we have ever had in this country - more accurate, more up to date than ever before. They do reflect up to date population changes. Electoral Registration Officers have had powers to canvass not just by post but in person and have made sure that they are as accurate as possible, so I do not think there is any sense that the register is a particular issue."[67]

49. The Government appear to be in favour of the Electoral Commission's recommendation for individual voter registration, although they have made slow progress in implementing the change:

"The one area where the Electoral Commission recognises that we cannot act, we would like to, but we cannot act without new legislation is to move towards a system of individual registration. That is something that we have been considering but the Commission recognise that requires primary legislation and there was no way that could be done in time for June."[68]

50. The Committee recognises that the move to individual voter registration is complex and must be managed carefully to avoid electors 'falling off' the electoral register. However, the move to individual registration is critical to the extension of all-postal voting. We recommend that the Government seeks to introduce a bill at the earliest opportunity to secure the necessary legislation. The Government should consider working with the Office of National Statistics to utilise the next census period to implement the change. Each elector's signature, and a standard individual identifier, such as date of birth or national insurance number, should be required as part of the move to individual voter registration. Following the implementation of individual voter registration we recommend that the witnessed declaration of identity should be replaced with a voter-signed declaration. This declaration should also require completion of an individual identifier. This numeric based individual identifier will facilitate a computerised identity check on each returned ballot paper. Should this check fail, the voter's signature should be compared with the signature held on the electoral register. In addition, each Returning Officer should signature check a sample of returned papers, and contact each of the sampled voters for additional verification. Additional Government funding should be made available to ensure Returning Officers have the necessary resources to implement these recommendations, and a significant expansion of canvassing for individual registration.

Investigation of Electoral Fraud

Police investigations

51. Police investigations into allegations of electoral fraud offences are specialist in their nature and execution. A number of offences associated with electoral matters are identified by current legislation:

52. The Police cannot undertake any investigation into allegations of such offences until a report has been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), or, in the case of offences contrary to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), to the Electoral Commission. The CPS must assess whether offences may have been committed, and whether to proceed. The CPS view is that proceedings for major infringements will normally be in the public interest, although recognising that these are relatively infrequent. Proceedings for minor infringements may not be in the public interest if:

  • The offence is of a technical nature which does not infringe the spirit of the legislation;
  • The offence was committed as a result of a genuine mistake or misunderstanding;
  • The offence could not have influenced the result of the election process; or
  • The offender has remedied any breach of the law.[70]

53. The requirement to refer allegations to the CPS before any police investigation can commence means inquiries may be subject to a delay. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch told us that in some cases this delay had been as long as several months. They are concerned that this may be critical at an early stage of an investigation where it is necessary to secure and preserve evidence.[71]

54. Investigation of electoral offences does not generally attract a high degree of prioritisation within the police. Responsibility is usually allocated to general CID offices or fraud squads. Only the Metropolitan Police Special Branch have a specialist Prosecutions Unit (MPSB SPU), set up three years ago, to investigate offences contrary to the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 (RPA) and allied legislation within London. Investigation of electoral fraud is not laid down as a core Special Branch activity but the Commissioner believes electoral fraud amounts to an attempt to undermine democracy and should therefore be investigated.[72] The pro-active approach of the Metropolitan Police is welcomed by Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission:

"[…] it is not something that has always happened - that there is a real focus in the police on following up allegations of fraud. Malcolm [Dumper, of the Association of Electoral Administrators] would know more of this than me, but I think historically the police have preferred to leave politics alone as far as is possible."[73]

It may not however be the 'politics' that deter other police forces, but the nature of the offences. Electoral offences are not straight forward to investigate:

"The RPA is pretty complicated for us to investigate. The number of offences in there are simply crazy […]."[74]

Nor are they commonly encountered:

"It may, for example, only be a local unit, so the experience of those cases is often very, very limited indeed, especially, of course, because the incidence of actual fraud, as far as we know, is not particularly heavy compared with other offences."[75]

55. The lack of experience in investigating offences may be partly caused by the lack of complaints reported to the police. Lord Greaves believes that in some communities language and cultural barriers make it difficult for electors to report complaints; and the police will not investigate allegations made by third parties:

"[…] they [the police] are only prepared to go forward with complaints if the individual elector whose vote has been stolen allegedly makes an individual complaint and they will not do it on the allegation of third parties such as political parties, and I think that is a serious difficulty."[76]

Grant Thoms of the Scottish National Party believes that electors are often unaware that electoral offences are criminal offences which fall under the remit of the police:

"If you look at the review of elections, particularly in 1997-2001, the police certainly in Scotland said at one point that no electoral offences had been committed in total, never mind for postal voting, and part of what came out of that process was that nobody understood how to report electoral offences. There were lots of stories going through all the parties about what had happened, but it was very difficult to make a very clear case and know who to report it to. A lot of people think the returning officers have the power to investigate and do not understand the police do, and out of that process for the 2003 elections in Scotland there was new guidance given to the police on how to record it, and we were then able to advise our activists, candidates and agents on how to record it, and for the first time we had formal complaints made over a number of issues to the police. Some of them are still being investigated so we cannot even tell you what the outcome is."[77]

Police powers

56. As we have highlighted in this report, there is concern from some groups that all-postal voting will result in increased incidences of electoral fraud. Although there is no significant evidence to suggest this, the Metropolitan Police Special Branch are keen to ensure they have the necessary powers to investigate alleged electoral offences. They argue that search and arrest powers would help:

"Only under limited circumstances may a police constable arrest an individual for corrupt or illegal practices. Such an occasion would only arise if a presiding officer suspected that a case of Personation had occurred. In such instances a presiding officer at a polling station may direct a constable to arrest, although this is limited to the immediate area of the polling station itself. The current legislation carries with it no power of search. Given that the offences, other than that mentioned above, are not arrestable, police do not benefit from the powers of search after arrest as provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). A power of search would be desirable to police in the investigation of offences under RPA and possibly PPERA. With particular regard to postal voting, circumstances can be envisaged where a suspect may be in possession of material that has been used in the commission of an offence at an address. These might include documents relating to false identities and other documents or even electronic data that may relate to the fraudulent acquisition of votes. In such a case police will be unable to secure this evidence because of the lack of a power of search. The alternative to providing police with a power to apply for a search warrant would be to provide a power of arrest to offences against the Act(s). It is also worthy of note that in the investigation of electoral offences police must rely on the goodwill of a suspect in coming to a police station to answer questions relating to such offences, unless there are grounds to arrest for other specific matters. Police currently have no power to compel a suspect to attend an interview. Therefore, a power of arrest would have the dual benefit of providing police with a power of search under PACE and to oblige suspects to attend interview."[78]

"We would like to have a power of arrest and search. For example, if somebody, especially some of the ultra right parties, are in a street trying to get proxy votes, people to sign them, we would like to have the power of arrest, and therefore search as well - to search their vehicle perhaps - which at the moment is not available and therefore we have to rely on other powers to overcome that."[79]

They believe more time to investigate allegations would also help. Under current legislation there is a one-year time limit on prosecutions for electoral offences. However initial allegations may not immediately follow the conclusion of an election and can sometimes be several months afterwards. A witness from the Metropolitan Police Special Branch told us:

"The normal time limit for investigation of election offences is 12 months and I think there is probably a case for extending that time up to maybe two years. Of course, that would mean that witnesses may be interfered with at a later stage of the investigation, so I would argue for the time limit to be extended after the 12 months should there be a requirement for it."[80]

One police witness also believed the Police should have powers to judge whether investigation of a minor offence would be in the 'public interest'; i.e. whether a case is significant enough to report to the Crown Prosecution Service:

"[…] the Crown Prosecution [Service] have the power to direct the investigation, we have to take everything seriously before we can put any form of evidence before the Crown Prosecution Service. I would say all offences are taken seriously. In fact, I personally would welcome in the Special Branch for the police to have discretion in very minor technical offences, as long as no further serious illegal or corrupt practices are revealed, for us to make a decision at an early stage - if it is purely a technical offence - to say we are not going to take this any further because it does not serve the public interest."[81]

Punishing electoral offences

57. The Metropolitan Police told us that they were disappointed with the punishments that had been awarded for electoral offences:

"[…]. The Crown Prosecution Service and courts always err on the side of caution. If they can give verbal warnings or they can give perhaps cautions, then they will go for that. All the time since I have been in the unit investigating this crime, there has only been one incident where anybody has actually received a term of imprisonment."[82]

Representative A added:

"I think you need to bear in mind that in some of these cases we have had some quite large conspiracies and people have actually been charged with conspiracy to defraud and not just specific electoral offences, and even in those cases the courts have still not really regarded them as sufficiently serious. […] I certainly have had personal evidence of the judiciary not fully understanding the legislation."[83]

National database of electoral offences

58. Currently only the CPS have any oversight of the national picture concerning electoral fraud because all allegations have to be reported to them before investigation. However, in its report on Absent Voting, the Electoral Commission called for a national database to record electoral fraud. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch support this recommendation:

"The police, as you know, will often come together in a variety of fora to discuss items of general interest. I think this is something that ought to be addressed nationally. I am not saying it is a huge, serious issue but it is something that is a specialised issue that deserves a bit of wider coverage. There are often techniques about which we can learn from each other, for example, and, yes, a database of previous offences would often be quite useful, bearing in mind that the offences themselves are not necessarily recordable and therefore do not necessarily appear on the police national computer."[84]

Representative A added:

"I would be looking if possible for a database enabling us actually to analyse the addresses that are being used in common, maybe across whole electoral borders, across counties, which are being used for the manipulation of votes in this way. In this modern age I think it should be possible at least to create something."[85]

Undue Influence

59. Undue influence, where a voter is pressured into voting a particular way, is one of the hardest electoral offences for the police to investigate. Undue influence can take place in several situations;

In each of these cases the person seeking to influence the vote may offer assistance in the completion of the declaration of identity, often acting as the required witness to the voter's signature, thus ensuring they are present when the elector completes their vote; offer to collect a completed postal vote for onward transmission to the Returning Officer; or even suggest the voter arranges to have their ballot papers sent to a central place where they can come and complete their vote at a later time.[86]

60. The difficulty for the police is that whilst some of the above activities are 'unethical', they are not illegal. Under current legislation an elector may opt for a postal vote to be sent to an address other than the address listed on the electoral roll. So in a conventional election a canvasser can persuade an elector to sign a form to apply for a postal vote, the advantage to the elector being that the canvasser will arrange this for them. The postal votes are, on request, sent to the candidate's election office. The canvasser duly takes the postal ballot to the elector who then casts their vote and the canvasser passes this with other "harvested" votes to the Returning Officer. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch told us:

"I cannot say we have come across many cases like that. We do have one case which is currently awaiting trial at crown court, so I can only talk in general terms, but that involved an inner London borough where a representative of a candidate was approaching residents on an estate, explaining the postal ballot system to them and getting them to sign the form. The ballot was redirected to the party HQ and on the day of voting, this particular individual would turn up and literally stand over your shoulder while you voted, which personally I think is unethical, if anything. Whilst the actual sending of the ballot paper to party HQ is not illegal, it does obviously raise concerns about harvesting and farming of ballot papers."[87]

They added:

"The elderly and infirm are particularly susceptible to this type of activity. Although not in itself an offence, it could well be argued that those living alone or those who are infirm may well be susceptible to undue influence from the canvasser at the very moment they mark their ballot paper in the casting of their vote." […] "Whilst not in itself illegal, there must be serious ethical concerns over such a practice by parties. […] should an allegation be received involving these circumstances, an investigation into a breach of confidentiality or undue influence will pose particular problems to police concerning the corroboration of evidence. We believe that the option for an elector to have their postal vote sent to an address other than that shown on the electoral roll should be removed, or the "harvesting" of votes by parties outlawed."[88]

61. However Roger Morris, an experienced Returning Officer does not believe such activity is common:

"I have to say, my experience over 30 years with all the principal political parties is that they are much more concerned with getting the vote out and complying with the rules. It is not my experience that there is much that you could call a deliberate attempt to subvert the requirements. Of course the possibility exists and one has to be on guard, but very often the publicity that, perhaps, some candidates think they can achieve outweighs their sense of judgment on occasions. It is relatively small scale and I think we are on guard for it."[89]

Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman of the Local Government Association, shares this view. He has more worries about the influence of groups within the community:

"[…] there are some concerns, not necessarily about [political] parties but about other organisations, in one case a London borough suggested that everyone brought their votes to a religious organisation, a Christian organisation, and cast their votes together. That should be discouraged."[90]

62. There is concern that such incidents will increase under all-postal voting. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch believe the complexities of the all-postal voting process may force people to seek assistance from others in the community, especially in communities with language barriers:

"I think there are dangers with certain of the communities in inner cities. These are often people who do not fully understand the nature of the system - and I am not just talking about people who are visibly ethnic minority community members; they may well be indigenous members of the community. But the process is pretty complicated. […] there will be people who look to their elders and advisers for assistance, and all it takes is for one of these people to be rather corrupt and you have a problem, a major problem. We had this in north London about four years ago where a very close-knit community was attacked by just a couple of people really and that actually caused quite a lot of community tension."[91]

Richard Price QC OBE of the HS Chapman Society shares this view. He believes the all-postal system is inherently flawed because voters will be open to undue influence from all types of groups:

"[…] I do not think it is restricted to party agents. I think it is restricted to anybody who is involved in a pressure group of whatever sort. It could be a community pressure group, it could be a trade union pressure group, it could be any sort of pressure group you like to name, and if you have the all-postal vote system then the opportunity for them to do something that they should not be doing is greater than it would otherwise be."[92]

Roger Morris however disagrees;

"In my experience, most of the people who want to do something with an individual vote are not really into "farming" or trying to change the result of the election; they have some personal interest perhaps based on getting themselves on the register for credit reasons or other things of that sort. Their aim is less to do with the voting outcome then their personal interests."[93]

63. It is the personal interest of voters that worries Ken Ritchie of the Electoral Reform Society. He believes all-postal voting systems may lead to creation of a market in votes:

"[…] if you can demonstrate to somebody how you are voting then your vote becomes almost a saleable commodity. There is no point in somebody bribing me on how to vote if I can then go into the privacy of a polling booth and double-cross them and take the money but cast my vote in the way that I would have wanted. But if somebody can actually see how I am using my vote, then that is something that makes bribery worthwhile."[94]

Sarah Birch and Robert Watt, academics specialising in electoral systems also believe this could happen:

"If individuals can be expected to find benefit in voting in their own interest, they will find even more benefit in seeking to alter the choices of numerous other voters. And other self-seeking individuals would undoubtedly have to be offered only relatively modest rewards in order to tip the cost-benefit ratio in favour of accepting immediate gain in exchange for their votes. The public nature of open voting can thus be expected to create a market in votes. But this market will function effectively only if 'buyers' have a means of verifying that votes have been cast as requested. In obstructing the verification process, the secret ballot goes a long way towards blocking the exchange of votes for immediate rewards by preventing voters from selling the power they exercise over their choice."[95]

This is obviously something the Government, Electoral Commission, and police will have to consider carefully. However it should be remembered that outright bribery is illegal, and potentially easier to investigate by the police if money or goods have changed hands. Few candidates or voters are likely to consider such activity.

64. The Committee does not believe that all-postal voting poses any greater security risk than conventional voting. However, we believe that the investigation and prosecution of electoral offences needs to improve in order to increase public confidence in the system. We therefore strongly support the Electoral Commission's report on Absent Voting which recommends;

  • Inter-agency cooperation to develop and disseminate information and guidance to local police forces in relation to electoral offences;
  • Development of a protocol in liaison with prosecution authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), and the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) setting out clearly the respective roles of the Returning Officer, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in pursuing allegations of fraud;
  • Identification of best practice in relation to the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballots by representatives of political parties and development of a Code of Practice in conjunction with political parties;
  • More publicity for offenders caught and successfully prosecuted for electoral offences;
  • Introduction of a new offence of intending fraudulently to apply for a postal (or proxy) vote. The maximum sentence should be a custodial sentence in line with the penalties for personation;
  • Redrafting of the law on undue influence to clarify the nature of the offence. It should also become a legal requirement that secrecy warnings are included on postal (and proxy) voting literature;
  • Extension of the existing statutory provisions on personation to give the police power of arrest based on 'reasonable suspicion' of personation at any location; and
  • Introduction of a new legal provision so that in exceptional circumstances, and where the prosecution has demonstrated all due diligence, the Courts may extend prosecution time limits by up to 12 months.

65. We wish to underline the need for prosecution agencies to rigorously pursue allegations of electoral offences, and for the courts to punish those convicted with harsher penalties. Political parties have a responsibility to demonstrate the security of postal voting, therefore candidates and canvassers who are convicted should be banned from participation in election activity.

66. In addition to the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission, we recommend that the Government consider the case for granting the police search and arrest powers to aid investigations of allegations of electoral offences. We also think it is vital that the Government establish a national database to record allegations of electoral offences. In the response to this report we recommend that the Government outlines the number and nature of all allegations of electoral offences resulting from the June 2004 combined elections.   

24   Q361, HC 400-III [Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords] Back

25   Q154, HC 400-III [Richard Price QC OBE, Management Committee, HS Chapman Society] Back

26   Ev 79, HC 400-III [The Green Party] Back

27   Q22, HC 400-III [Malcolm Dumper, Chief Executive, Association of Electoral Administrators] Back

28   Q422, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

29   Q24, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

30   HC Deb, 19 April 2004, col 15, [Commons Chamber] Back

31   Q24, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

32   Q31, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

33   Q68, HC 400-III [John Pitt, Corporate Director, Wakefield Council Back

34   Q346, HC 400-III [Peter Watt, Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit, Labour Party] Back

35   Q37, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

36   Q74-79, HC 400-III [Bill Crawford, Electoral Officer, Sunderland City Council] Back

37   Q23, HC 400-III [Malcolm Dumper, Executive Director, Association of Electoral Administrators] Back

38   Q220, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigns Manager, Scope] Back

39   Ev 18, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

40   Ev 51, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

41   Q168, HC 400-III [Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society] Back

42   Q23, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

43   Ev 28, HC 400-II [HS Chapman Society] Back

44   Q351, HC 400-III [Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords] Back

45   Q277, HC 400-III [Councillor Suzanne Fletcher MBE, Stockton on Tees Borough Council] Back

46   The Electoral Commission, Absent voting in Great Britain, March 2003, Executive Summary Back

47   Ev16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

48   Ev16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

49   Ev16, HC 400-II [Scope]


50   Q161, HC 400-III [Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society] Back

51   Q21, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

52   Ev 75, HC 400-III [Scottish National Party] Back

53   Q200, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch]  Back

54   Q29, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

55   Q404, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

56   Ev 63, HC 400-III [Electoral Reform Society] Back

57   Q27, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

58   Ev 63, HC 400-III [Electoral Reform Society] Back

59   Q162, HC 400-III [Richard Price QC OBE, Management Committee, HS Chapman Society] Back

60   Q21, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

61   Q314, HC 400-III [Grant Thoms, Head of Campaign Unit, Scottish National Party] Back

62   Q343, HC 400-III [Gavin Barwell, Operations Director, Conservative Party] Back

63   Q346, HC 400-III [Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords] Back

64   Q346, HC 400-III [Peter Watt, Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit, Labour Party] Back

65   Q21, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

66   Q26, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

67   Q414, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

68   Q 373, HC 400-III [Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP, Minister of State, Local and Regional Government, ODPM] Back

69   Ev 51, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

70   Ev 49, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

71   Ev 49, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

72   Ev 48-52, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

73   Q37, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

74   Q206, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

75   Q186, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

76   Q364, HC 400-III [Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords] Back

77   Q313, HC 400-III [Grant Thoms, Head of Campaigns Unit, Scottish National Party] Back

78   Ev 50, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

79   Q192, HC 400-III [Representative B, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

80   Q189, HC 400-III [Representative B, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

81   Q197, HC 400-III [Representative B, Metropolitan Police Special Branch]  Back

82   Q208, HC 400-III [Representative B, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

83   Q209, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

84   Q187, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

85   Q193, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

86   Ev 12, HC 400-II [Association of Electoral Administrators] Back

87   Q203, HC 400-III [Representative C, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

88   Ev 51, HC 400-II [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

89   Q88, HC 400-III [Roger Morris, East Midlands Regional Returning Officer, European Parliamentary elections] Back

90   Q135, HC 400-III [Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman, Local Government Association] Back

91   Q206, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

92   Q173, HC 400-III [Richard Price QC OBE, Management Committee HS Chapman Society] Back

93   Q56, HC 400-III [Roger Morris, East Midlands Regional Returning Officer, European Parliamentary elections] Back

94   Q156, HC 400-III [Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society] Back

95   Sarah Birch and Rob Watt, "Remote Electronic Voting: Free, Fair and Secret?", Political Quarterly, vol 75(1) (January 2004), p65 Back

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