Voter fraud: the nut and the sledgehammer

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 15th August 2016

Last week, the Former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, published his report into tackling electoral fraud in the UK.

While we should of course take all instances of voter fraud very seriously, this report is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The report was commissioned following the 2015 Tower Hamlets election court judgment, which saw the disqualification of the mayor for a number of illegal practices. It was a shocking case. But whether it alone justifies the report’s 50 recommendations for the whole of the UK – including the introduction of mandatory voter ID – is another question.

The introduction of voter ID is something that has to be thought about very carefully. There’s a big risk that it raises a barrier to participation and could put people off voting. Voting should be as easy as possible while also secure. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s not clear that electoral fraud is anywhere near widespread enough to justify in and of itself such a major change to the accessibility and openness of citizens voting in the UK. There’s evidence that strict voter ID rules in some US states disproportionately disadvantages ethnic minority voters and already-marginalised groups.

The experience of (photographic) electoral ID in Northern Ireland is more positive, and while the report does refer to this and explore several options, the final recommendation is for a watered down form which wouldn’t necessarily reduce fraud. Allowing the use of non-photographic (and perhaps easily-forgeable) utility bills would mean the change could actually do more harm than good – making it harder to vote while not tackling alleged problems.

Put simply, there is very little evidence that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK. The UK’s electoral process (that’s conduct, not the voting system!) is highly respected internationally, including by international monitoring organisations. The report’s analysis of alleged electoral fraud (when not looking at Tower Hamlets) goes off anecdotal reports which haven’t been verified by the Electoral Commission, court or any other body.

Another potentially concerning suggestion is around the use of language and assistance in polling stations – making it illegal to speak any language other than English and Welsh in a polling station.  This could unfairly penalise those who struggle with (spoken) English but who are otherwise engaged in democracy – as is their right.

Moreover, the review’s comments on the Electoral Commission raise alarm bells – calling for the removal of the Commission’s power to make recommendations to the government and public statements. The Commission has a crucial role promoting turnout and improving the British democratic process. Its ability to hold the government and electoral regulations to account and to call for improvements is arguably as much a part of its ‘core role’ as its regulatory one.

Nonetheless, there are some recommendations that we would very much welcome. Clearer guidance and better training of election staff and Returning Officers are changes everyone can get behind, while other suggestions to introduce stronger powers against voter intimidation and to make it easier to launch ‘election petitions’ to report fraud are very much worth discussing.

Overall however, we’re concerned that this report doesn’t provide enough verified evidence to justify making it harder to vote by raising barriers to democratic participation in the UK. As things stand, the ‘nut’ of electoral fraud allegations does not necessitate the ‘sledgehammer’ that this report raises.

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