I was pretty amazed to see the head of the Electoral Commission lambasting problems in polling at the General Election evidence of a “19th-century system for running elections was “buckling” under the weight of 21st-century democracy.”
Jenny Watson has launched an inquiry into what happened. Well, it doesnt seem too complicated.
The scenes of voters being turned away at polling stations should not happen in a modern democracy. I don’t agree that just by turning up at 9.59pm you should expect to waltz straight in and vote, but some of the people turned away had been queing for hours and they should have been able to vote. Equally, the idea that some councils predict how many people won’t turn out before putting the necessary resources in place has a woefull, Ryanair/Travelodge feel to it and those responsible should be given a very strong dressing down.
However, she does have a point about one thing - the electoral roll framework, initially designed for 5m people, is now creaking under 45m records.
The electoral roll is the basis of an incredible amount of systems. From council tax to school allocation, it is used by a host of government departments and agencies who treat it as gospel. Yet the British electoral roll is widely regarded by experts as one of the most inaccurate sources of data going.
The frenetic drive to increase postal vote registrations from all parties has not made the situation any easier, and the current system is woefully ill-equipped to deliver secure and transparent elections, as some election monitors from Kenya noted.
The words of Marie Marilyn Jalloh, an MP from Sierra Leone, are particularly cutting: “[The British] system is a recipe for corruption; it was a massive shock when I saw you didn’t need any identification to vote. In Sierra Leone you need an identity card and also to give your fingerprint. Here you need nothing. In this respect, our own system is more secure than yours.”
The example of Alfie McKenzie, who at 14 very nearly cast a vote, is not an isolated incident - the continuing situation of students being sent ballot cards or postal votes for multiple addresses continues unabated. Not to mention the acceptance from all quarters that there remain a large number of ‘ghost’ voters, who for one reason or another no longer live at the address they have a vote sent to.
Let me make myself clear - the reason for low turnout is not the hugley impractical process of having to get to a polling station. It’s because people either don’t feel their vote will matter, feel the politicians on offer are all as bad as each other, or because for one reason or another they are not engaged by the political debate. Plus, there will always be some people, however depressing it is to say, who will simply not be bothered enough to vote.
As I watched the rejected ballots be sifted for my own constituency, there were several people who had opted to spoil their ballots (some in more creative and defamatory ways than others!) and I was reminded that one great principle of the British electoral system is the ability to spoil your ballot. (Not possible in e-elections or mechanical telling machines - unless you’re trying to vote for Al Gore in Florida)
The solution to this isnt a mammoth, national IT database, but if one local authority could pilot an alternative way of managing the electoral roll, and perhaps test some innovations in how the poll could work, we might improve participation and reduce the risk of fraud at the same time.
What kind of innovations? Well, here are a few points I think should be considered:
- Fundamental reform in the way the electoral register is created and managed - perhaps using a ‘live’ database to cross reference, such as National Insurance or PAYE records - this should also include serious reform of voter registration processes
- A tightening up of the postal vote system, restricting it to pensioners, the incapacitated and those out of the country on polling day
- An ‘advance vote’ system where instead of postal votes, a single polling booth is made available (possibly at the head office of the relevant local authority) where people can vote in advance (ie between close of nominations and polling day) to remove need for postal/proxy votes
- A formal ID check at polling stations
- Serious consideration should be given to moving polling day to a Saturday or Sunday
Categories: Electoral Reform, nick pickles
Tags: electoral fraud, electoral roll, general election, nick pickles, postal voting
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