Examination of Witnesses (Questions 145-159)|
16 MARCH 2004
PRICE QC OBE AND
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
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
Mr Ritchie: I do not have anything
to say in addition to the written statement. I appreciate that
the written statement did arrive latean e-mail communication
did not reach usand 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
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 itand
that has already been done: we already have postal voting on demand,
but you have to ask for itbut 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
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
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 somebodyWho 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.