Foreign influence, not voter fraud, is the biggest threat to our democracy

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 12th November 2018

“Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’, so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?” wrote one Republican businessman earlier this year. “Yes” came the reply from a key Republican tactician in Milwaukee.

The email chain, later leaked to the press, preceded a spate of unverified allegations – a month later, strict legislation was introduced to prevent those without the right ID from voting.

In North Dakota, legislators recently passed a law demanding voters prove their ‘registered street address’ – disproportionately affecting the large Native American community there who don’t live on streets.

All this is part of a trend across the US these past few years. Parties change the rules of the game when they believe it will give them an edge over their opponents.

While politics in the UK is very different, it’s hard not to see parallels with the government’s plan to force voters to show their papers at the polling station.

Eleven voter ID trials will take place in England next year, following five trials this May. Writing for the Times, the Minister for the Constitution says the ‘the numbers speak for themselves’ when it comes to the ‘success’ of those trials.

However, there is one number she conveniently fails to mention: 350. That was the number of voters denied their vote in just five trial areas. It’s twice as many as the number of personation allegations in the past eight years across the whole UK. Voter ID is a solution seeking a problem.

Like the US – still taking stock from this week’s midterms – British democracy faces very real threats that are being ignored.

A new study has shown an ‘unprecedented decline’ in the core institutions of the UK’s democratic system – particularly Westminster.

The problems range from an unelected second chamber and a medieval electoral system that “erratically assigns parties seats in no fixed relation to their share of votes”, to gaping loopholes in campaign funding.

[bctt tweet=”The reality is that, for anyone set on rigging an election, it is far easier to pump cash into political campaigns and digital adverts than to tour constituencies in an overcoat pretending to be someone else.” username=”electoralreform”]

We know that Russian bots have been active in UK contests and investigations by the Times have alerted us to possible connections between some members of the House of Lords with Russian interests. We know that our campaign funding rules leave elections wide open to foreign influence on a potentially mass scale.

And yet, there are only miniscule amounts of personation fraud in the UK – where a fraudster imitates another to use their vote – the type of fraud these proposals seek to address. The real dangers facing democracy matter as talk heats up around the idea of a second referendum. So why is the minister chasing minnows while the sharks circle?

Despite little evidence of electoral fraud, thousands of honest voters will have been turned away in the US midterms this week, in what are often brazen attempts to undermine specific communities’ access to the ballot. Closer to home, the Windrush scandal – which highlighted many Brits’ lack of formal documentation – should be a warning that strict ID laws are playing with fire.

Making ordinary voters show their papers will not tackle the democratic crisis eating away at Westminster. Instead, the new requirements will deny thousands their democratic voice by preventing them from casting their legitimate vote. Going after ordinary voters may be the easy route, but in the face of genuine concerns over online foreign interference and dodgy donations, it is the wrong one.

This blog post was originally posted on The Times.

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