Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)|
16 MARCH 2004
PRICE QC OBE AND
Q160 Sir Paul Beresford: I was talking
to the Mayor of Auckland, where they have had all-postal voting
for some time. His comment was that initially the turnout went
up and then it dropped back, but anecdotally he was clearly convinced
that a considerable proportion of the increase was down to fraud.
Mr Price: Yes.
Q161 Sir Paul Beresford: Do you agree
with that? Possibly?
Mr Ritchie: We have seen very
big increases in turnouts in places like Gateshead and I just
do not believe that those increases are due to fraud. But what
does worry me is that in places like Gateshead they conducted
the pilots without using a declaration of identity. You may arguewe
would certainly arguethat 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. I would argue that
it is more likely that in Gateshead they made voting easier and
the publicity surrounding the pilots have also increased the turnout,
but what proportion of the increase might have been fraud we would
not want to guess.
Q162 Chris Mole: If we accept that there
are problems but they are unquantified, how do we strike the balance
between the benefit of increasing turnout and the loss of security
that it could be argued is self-evident in a traditional voting
Mr Price: It seems to me that
that question throws up some pretty fundamental problems. If you
are going to introduce all-postal voting it would seem to us in
the societyand I think it would also seem to the Electoral
Commissionthat 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. In many ways,
this is linked to the possibility of compulsory individual registration
and electoral identification cards being issued. That is the system
that operates in Brazil, where they in fact have an electronic
voting system. When somebody reaches the age of majority in Brazil,
they get an electoral identification card. Without that card they
cannot in fact get any other state benefits or even a driving
licence, but then when they go to vote there is a method of checking
who they are. They use an electronic system and it appears to
work very well.
Q163 Chris Mole: Is there anything that
can be done to ensure, when an individual votes within their own
household, that you can guarantee the individual has voted personally?
Or do we have to assume that they are all mature adults and keep
these things secret, as they would their banking or medical records?
Mr Ritchie: Clearly it is not
something that can be policed but we would certainly want to see
there being plenty of warnings given that this was something that
was illegal. It is illegal to watch somebody else voting; it should
be illegal to cast your vote when somebody else can watch. If
that warning was made very clear in the information sent to the
voter, perhaps on the ballot paper itself in bold type, it would
not overcome the problem but it might at least be a deterrent
for some people who were tempted.
Q164 Mr Sanders: Is it acceptable to
introduce the all-postal ballot in June before implementation
of the Electoral Commission's recommendations?
Mr Price: Are you talking about
Q165 Mr Sanders: Yes.
Mr Price: We would be of the view
that it is notcertainly not on the scale that was originally
planned. The logistics in any event of all-postal ballots in the
European elections this June seem to some of us to be quite difficult,
simply because of the problems of timing, but we would have thought
that with electoral areas this large it would be desirable, if
not essential, for there to be some safeguard that the registration
system itself was as reliable as it could be.
Mr Ritchie: I think we would say
from our society that we would be unhappy, though we do recognise
that it is not satisfactory to have an election in which perhaps
only one in four or perhaps one in five people turn out to vote.
You cannot be certain then that the outcome reflects the will
of the electorate as a whole. So there is a balance to be struck.
We are not certain about the argument that going ahead in this
case is the right thing to do but we accept that there is a balance
of risk against the disadvantage of a poor turnout. It is a judgment
that has to be made.
Q166 Mr Sanders: How important is the
introduction of individual voter registration?
Mr Ritchie: We would see it as
essential if you are moving towards any form of remote votingand
of course we are already in a situation where people can ask for
a postal vote on demand. Now that that facility exists, we think
it is very important that that is done as soon as possible.
Q167 Mr Sanders: How concerned are you
with proposals to modify the "declaration of identity"
to do away with the need for witness attestation?
Mr Price: In the H S Chapman Society
we are very concerned. We are very concerned, amongst other things,
that we appear to be in complete disagreement with the Electoral
Commission about this. The Electoral Commission appear to be in
favour of scrapping the requirement of having a witness to a declaration
of identity, so that you go to self-certification, where you just
have what is supposed to be a signature on the declaration of
identity which is linked to nothing. There is no outside way of
checking that signature against anything at the moment. In one
of the cases to which we refer in our submissions which was in
the courts this year, the declarations of identity in an all-postal
local authority pilot scheme were there to be seen at the court-supervised
inspection of the ballot papers and vast numbers of the signatures
on those forms were squiggles which may or may not have been a
signaturecertainly they were not a recognisable signature
Q168 Mr Sanders: Was anything done at
the time? The problem with the system at the moment is that nobody
seems to be bothering to take up whether they are genuine signatures.
Mr Price: I am not sure that the
system exists at the moment to enable that to be done. Certainly
the returning officer or whoever is running the election at the
moment would have no means, short of walking round to somebody's
house, putting the declaration of identity under their nose and
asking them whether the signature is theirs.
Mr Ritchie: Certainly there is
nothing to check against, but, on the other hand, 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 elsefor some voters that
might be difficultbut 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
Q169 Christine Russell: Do electoral
registration officers not already have power to do the checking,
but is it not true that they just do not do it because of lack
of resources or time?
Mr Ritchie: With a declaration
of identity there is nothing at all to check against.
Q170 Christine Russell: What about who
is actually on the register? Do you think more should be done
to check that all the entries on the register are valid?
Mr Ritchie: Yes.
Mr Price: Yes.
Q171 Christine Russell: Could I ask you
about whether or not marked copies of the register should be made
available. If the answer is yes, at what point during the campaign
should it be made available to political parties?
Mr Ritchie: We would certainly
want to see marked copies continuing to be made available to parties
and others after the election. I am not so sure though about before
the close of the poll.
Q172 Christine Russell: Do you see any
difficulties in giving daily returns to political parties of those
who have returned their postal votes?
Mr Ritchie: It is not one I have
Mr Price: I have to say, nor have
Q173 Chris Mole: Are you worried about
the role that party agents might take in interfering with all-postal
votes by going out and interacting with the voters in a way that
is not appropriate?
Mr Price: I think that is a risk
but 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.
Q174 Chris Mole: Would the cost to your
cause not be too great for the risk? Is the damage to be done
when you are found out not higher than the value you get by doing
Mr Ritchie: I think the difficulty
is that within a political party the agent might know the rules
but you have other very, very enthusiastic people who are all
out doing the job, and it is where you put the dividing line between
trying to argue your case and being very persuasive and perhaps
going a little bit too far and actually directing the voter on
how to vote.
Q175 Chris Mole: If you go back to the
traditional approach to voting, in general the national elections
produce a higher turnout. Does that not suggest that the issue
is something other than the voting method?
Mr Ritchie: It is what election
analysts would call a first order rather than a second order election.
It is an election in which many more people take an interest:
they feel it is going to have much more significance for the country
and therefore there is more interest and more people turn out
to vote. I do not think it is at all to do with the voting method.
It certainly indicates that where people feel that voting makes
sense or it is important to them, they will go to the polling
Q176 Mr Betts: If the Government does
insist in forcing through a change to the system which is self-evidently
open to far greater abuse like fraud, what is the increased Scope
for legal challenge after the event, whether it be according to
the Human Rights Act or other aspects of electoral law?
Mr Price: The only way you can
challenge an electoral result is through an election petition
through the High Court. There would be an increased risk of more
challenges, but it all depends on somebody having the evidence
in a particular case because you cannot bring those petitions
unless you have the evidence and you have to have it in a very
short period of time after the election, which is usually 21 days,
and that time period cannot be extended. So there is a narrow
time frame for people to bring up the challenge and they have
to be prepared, if you like, to fund it and have the evidence
to prove it; that can be difficult for private individuals.
Q177 Mr Clelland: In June, particularly
in metropolitan areas, electors are going to face all-out elections
which they are not used to. Normally one-third of the council
will retire each year; this time electors are going to have the
opportunity to vote for three candidates potentially on one ballot
paper, on the basis of new wards, again on all-postal ballots.
At the same time they are going to be voting in the European elections,
which are done on a PR system, all-postal votes. Later on this
year, in four of the regions, we are going to have regional government
referenda, and in the shire areas there will again be multiple
choices on those ballot papers. Then, when the general election
comes, perhaps next year or the year after, they are going to
return to a first past-the-post system again. Is this not going
to be a bit confusing for electors?
Mr Price: I would have thought
it is going to be inordinately confusing. There are an awful lot
of problems already, with people being confused with the existing
system, but faced with that lot I would not like to guess what
Mr Ritchie: The evidence suggests
that voters in other parts of the world and, indeed, in other
parts of Britain can cope with using different electoral systems
without any great problem but it is important that there is as
strong an educational campaign and information campaign beforehand,
so that, for example, where it is an all-out election, people
do know, if it is a three member ward, that they have three votes
and that they do not just cast one.
Q178 Mr Clelland: Who should be responsible
for that campaign? The political parties or the local authorities?
Mr Ritchie: The political parties
obviously have a job to do and it is in their interests that they
do it, but I would like to see the local authorities actually
doing it at the same time, no doubt with Electoral Commission.
Q179 Mr Clelland: What about the actual
material? The potential for confusion because the material is
not designed particularly well is enormous as well.
Mr Price: It is undoubtedly confusing.
If one looked at the way in which the ballot papers were devised
in the all-postal ballot, in one of the cases that we put in our
submission you in fact had one piece of paper which was folded
into three: one section was the ballot paper, the middle section
was the declaration of identity; and the third section was the
address of the voter, all joined together with perforations. As
one saw from the court recount, all sorts of voters did a whole
series of different things with that piece of paper. When they
sent in their postal vote, some sent the whole lot back, including
the bit with their name and address on; some tore the address
off and sent the declaration of identity back and the ballot paper
joined up; others sent them back separately; others chopped the
ballot paper up, so it was only half the length that it was on
the sheet, making it very difficult in fact to count them when
they got to the count. You could see that the voters were all
over the place in what they were supposed to do with this one
simple three-section form.