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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 145-159)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q145 Chairman: Could I welcome you to the Committee this morning for the second session of our inquiry into postal voting and ask you to identify yourselves for the record.

  Mr Price: My name is Richard Price, QC. I am a practising silk specialising in election law from the Littleton Chambers in London.

  Mr Ritchie: I am Ken Ritchie. I am the chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society.

  Q146 Chairman: Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?

  Mr Price: Could I perhaps explain. I am here on behalf the H S Chapman Society and some of you may not know what that is. It is an all-party election law association made up of election lawyers from all  the political parties, representatives, returning officers and electoral administrators. Its main concern is to alert the government and others to any electoral reforms which might expose the electoral system to electoral fraud.

  Mr Ritchie: I do not have anything to say in addition to the written statement. I appreciate that the written statement did arrive late—an e-mail communication did not reach us—and if the Committee wishes I could summarise in a few minutes—

  Chairman: It is all right. We have had the chance to read the document. David Clelland.

  Q147 Mr Clelland: At the moment people have a choice as to whether they vote by post or go down to the polling station. In an all-postal vote that choice has been taken away. Some people have argued that that choice is important, whereas, on the other side, there is the question of the costs of managing the different systems. How important do you think choice is?

  Mr Ritchie: Certainly for us it is a factor. We know there are many, particularly members of the older generation, who do feel quite strongly about doing what they see is their duty: going to the polling station to cast their vote. Even people who would under existing regulations be allowed to apply for a postal vote still prefer to make the arrangements to be ferried by car or to be aided to get to the polling station to vote in person. Whether that is something we would put a great deal of weight on, I am not sure, because certainly when it moves to much younger people I do not think they see it in the same way. The other thing that needs to be considered, of course, is that where people do go to vote at the polling station, there is somebody there who can give advice and guidance on how to vote, which would not be the case if they were voting at home. Even if there is postal voting, we would like to see a facility whereby votes, instead of being posted, might be returned to and collected from the town hall or public library, a place where they could go where there would be an official present to whom, if they had questions to ask, they would be able to put these questions.

  Q148 Mr Clelland: In the pilots we have had so far, that facility has been available, there have been collection points and people have used them. A number of people have actually voted on polling day itself at some of the collection points. You feel that would be sufficient in order to provide choice.

  Mr Ritchie: I feel that would be the minimum that should be provided.

  Q149 Sir Paul Beresford: Do you not foresee a problem for the elderly with cataracts, peering through magnifying glasses, trying to understand it, or in some of the inner city areas, where literacy is so poor that when looking for a telephone number people go down the shop and tell the shopkeeper, "My glasses are broken, can you read it out for me?" but in reality they cannot read, and people just will not vote?

  Mr Price: I would agree with that. I think our society believes that the question of choice as to how you vote is absolutely fundamental and it should remain because this has been the way in which the electoral system has worked so successfully in this country for so long. By all means make postal voting more available for the people who want it—and that has already been done: we already have postal voting on demand, but you have to ask for it—but we think there is an advantage in actually having to take a positive step to decide which way you want to vote. Voting is a two-way process, it seems to us. There is an obligation on the state and the returning officer to provide, if you like, a user-friendly system, but then there is the obligation on the voter to make a positive effort to exercise the vote.

  Q150 Chairman: Would it not be logical from what you have just said for the person to be able to opt not to have a postal ballot rather than to have to opt for a postal ballot? If we went to all-postal ballots for most people but then allowed people who did not want to have a postal vote to opt not to have one but to go to the polling station.

  Mr Price: It would certainly be a possibility. I have to say it is one that we have never previously considered. I am not quite sure what the resource implications would be of having both systems running side-by-side.

  Q151 Chairman: You are arguing for a choice, in a sense.

  Mr Price: Indeed.

  Q152 Chairman: And I am saying that you could have an opt in or an opt out of the system.

  Mr Price: I accept that.

  Q153 Chairman: Do you see, logically, any difference between the two?

  Mr Price: I think the difference is that the concept of all-postal voting is unusual in this country and people understand the concept of going to the polling station, which is what they have always done in the past. If they have to go through a process to opt out of the postal vote so that they can do what they have always been doing and are used to doing, it seems to me you might not achieve the result that you want.

  Q154 Sir Paul Beresford: Would it not have exactly the same problems as I was talking about of people opting in? In other words, the lady with the glasses to opt out would have great difficulty, the illiterate person would have great difficulty, so they just would not vote.

  Mr Price: Yes. I think that is a real problem. 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%, 20% 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.

  Q155 Mr Clelland: Do you think the secrecy of the ballot is compromised by all-postal elections?

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q156 Mr Clelland: Are there any human rights issues involved?

  Mr Ritchie: I believe there are. I mean, there have been references to whether this actually contravenes human rights. I am not certain we would regard it as going that far. I would look at it purely in terms of the consequences for the ballot. The danger of the secrecy ranges simply from the type of household where there might be a dominant member who is going to give a little bit more than just advice on how the members of the household should vote. I see that somebody has given written evidence referring to the differences in turnout by household in cases where there has been all-postal voting that suggests that perhaps it is an organised household effort. It may be that all members of the household had an equal interest in voting; or it may be that there was a particular individual in the household who felt it was their job to make sure that people cast their votes and perhaps cast their votes in a particular way, but it goes to the other end of the scale, where 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. We have seen bribery, in Germany a couple of years ago in elections there. There is no reason to expect that it will not happen here.

  Q157 Mr Clelland: Was that in postal voting in Germany, in the example you have given?

  Mr Ritchie: I am not aware, but I do not think it was in a situation in which the person who was doing the bribing could guarantee or the person voting could guarantee that the votes were going to be cast according to contract. If they could guarantee that they were going to be cast according to contract, then I would have thought that the value of the vote was going to go up somewhat. I think in local elections you sometimes do not need to increase your vote by a huge number to be fairly sure of success, and if you are successful there are financial rewards of success that run into thousands of pounds and you can see that the temptation there could become quite great.

  Q158 Mr Clelland: You mentioned about having a strong person in the household convincing everybody else how to vote. What is your view on compulsory voting? Should everyone be compelled to vote?

  Mr Ritchie: This is an issue that our society is debating at the moment. Generally the position that we have taken in the past is that, if people do not go out to vote, we need to think why it is that they do not go out to vote. It is not that voting has become more difficult; it is that for some reason people do not think that their vote is likely to influence the outcome of the election, or, if there is going to be a different outcome from the election, that the outcome will have a great impact upon their lives. You will not of course be surprised to know that our society will say that you need many things, including a change in the voting system. But even if that is not on the agenda, we think there are other things that ought to be done so that people feel that they want to vote rather than taking the step of making voting compulsory. Having said that, it is a debate which we are now having, it is an issue that we are now considering, but we still recognise that it is not a black and white issue, that there are many who would say that there are democratic arguments for saying that voting should be a right but not a duty. There are also democratic arguments for saying that everybody must have the responsibility to vote.

  Q159 Chris Mole: Everyone seems to be able to come up with 101 hypothetical ways of committing electoral fraud: the Committee is at risk of writing a handbook on electoral fraud through this inquiry, but do you think there is evidence of the scale of risk associated with fraud through the all-postal pilots that have taken place?

  Mr Price: The risk of electoral fraud through all-postal pilots seems to me to be self-evident, mainly for the reasons I have just given. In our paper I gave you an example of a case of electoral fraud from the system outside the all-postal pilots, through the system where we had postal voting on demand in 2002. That was where a family moved away from an address in a ward and somebody—Who knows?—applied for postal votes in the names of all members of that family and asked for the postal ballot papers to be sent to an outside address, away from the address on the electoral register. The result was of course that the genuine voters were in fact disenfranchised because postal ballot papers were actually issued to the fraudsters. There is just one example of electoral fraud in practice. In that particular election, which was a by-election in a London borough, the returning officer had been alerted to a number of other examples in similar circumstances. That is just an example of how it actually is being done. The problem with electoral fraud is that, by and large, it is difficult to detect, because after the event, unless somebody is inquiring deeply into the circumstances of one particular election, it probably will not emerge, but if somebody is thinking of challenging an election result because it is very close then everybody will investigate what has been going on at that election and through that investigation fraud may emerge. But it very often lies hidden under the surface.

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