In a former post, we looked at some of the many loopholes in the UK’s democratic system. Turning this around, let us now look at the many ways the British electoral system may be successfully exploited by a party sufficiently determined to seize power - or hold it at any cost.
Combining the findings from a number of recent investigations into electoral fraud in Britain (1,2,3,4,5), it is absolutely clear that - despite the current government's lip-service to electoral reform - all of the following means of electoral fraud remain relatively easy to execute across the whole of mainland UK (6):
1. Nominating people as postal voters without their knowledge, for the fraudulent use of their vote by a third party. The first voters know of this is when they turn up at the polling station and find they have already voted. (7)
2. Family voting by the householder on behalf of everyone in the house. The householder is in total control of the household voter registration, both in terms of who is registered and who is not. If he or she doesn’t approve of how someone will vote, they can delete them from the household register, or vote on their behalf by post, knowing their date of birth. (8)
3. Registering bogus voters on a household’s voter list. The householder can make up as many names/birthdays/identities/signatures as he/she wants. (9,10) This is particularly effective if a party persuades the householder to vote for it by post as a block. According to the Council of Europe inspection team, this is “very difficult to detect”. (11)
4. Registering to vote in multiple electorates. Many people do this legally, for example students who live away from home. But since there is no central electoral register, there is no limit to how many constituencies in which a person can register. Using postal voting, it is “childishly easy” in a General Election to send off multiple postal votes in plenty of time for all the constituencies where you are registered. (12)
Although illegal, routine collection and handling of postal votes by party activists (‘If you fill it in now, I'll post it for you.’), enables each of the following three related forms of electoral fraud:
5. Intimidating or bribing socially vulnerable voters to vote for the party that is collecting the postal vote, or to leave it blank for the party activist to complete later. This is devastatingly effective if the household is a student dorm or an old folks’ home, giving the activist enormous voting power. (13,14)
6. Altering completed postal votes. It’s as easy as crossing out one choice and replacing it with another. There are very lax rules about this. The party activist doesn't even have to match the pen colour.(15)
7. Destroying postal votes for the opposing parties. (16)
In addition, the UK Department of Justice (17) wants to bring in e-voting and e-counting, both of which are wide open to the same kinds of abuse to which all forms of remote voting are vulnerable: impersonation, bribery and intimidation.(18,19,20). If the Opposition objects to their use, this also creates a clear conflict of interest for the IT suppliers of the systems, and a strong commercial incentive to extend the incumbent Government’s tenure by:
8. Programming or changing results for electronic counts of postal votes. This is relatively easy to achieve, especially when observers are kept away from the computers doing the counting.(21) The Open Rights Group findings make it clear that for the systems so far deployed there is absolutely no way to verify the results produced. (22)
9. Hacking, programming or changing results of e-voting (online voting) totals. Again, there is absolutely no way to verify the results produced, particularly when the e-voting computer servers are locked away in data centres remote from the scrutiny of observers in the counting rooms. (23,24)
Thus, if e-voting and e-counting are deployed for the next General Election (as they were for Scotland’s elections of 2007), there will be in place nine separate ways for committing serious electoral fraud across the length of Britain.
Interestingly, of all the recommendations in the various reports, the UK government chose only to focus on the checking of personal identifiers on returned postal ballots, which is now mandatory.(25) Unfortunately, the potential fraud is not with who is voting by post, but the pressure brought to bear on those who voted, the handling of these votes, the corresponding destruction of postal votes for other candidates, and in whether the voter exists at all. (26) So this does absolutely nothing to eliminate any of the problems inherent in the concept of remote voting. What is more, this reform was in place before the highly dubious Glenrothes by-election result of November 2008 (27), and so had no effect whatsoever.
Whether intentionally distorting the truth by careful choice of words, or astonishingly unaware of the realities of electoral fraud, the report by the Electoral Commission on Glenrothes contained the following gem:
“A full check of all returned postal voting statements is the only way of checking that postal votes are returned by those who applied for them. Full checking will also remove actual and perceived loopholes in the system and can be expected to deter further attempts at malpractice. We therefore commend the Returning Officer and his staff for undertaking 100% verification on the first occasion of the Regulations being in force in Scotland.” (28)
Considering that all the Returning Officer was doing was checking unverifiable names and dates of birth on postal votes against a list of equally unverifiable names and date of birth on the electoral roll, this is utter nonsense.
Everyone seems to be missing the point. Even the author of the latest report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life seems to argue that the only issue at stake here is one of the public's faith in our democracy:
“Electoral fraud is not a trivial matter. It is an affront to the democratic principle of one-person one vote. Left unchecked it will eventually undermine trust and confidence in the democratic process and by implication the electorate’s consent to the outcome of elections.”(29)
But it’s even more serious than that. If ever there was a perfect time for a determined political party with a ruthless political machine to seize and hold the British state by massive electoral fraud, this would surely be it.
With Scottish independence looming and an increasing number of English demanding their own assembly, the danger is that some might see this as the only way of saving Britain, ironic as that may sound.
Since I wrote this, the expenses scandal has broken, and the BNP look like it might be seen by many as the alternative English party in the coming election. If you add immigration levels to the mix of why many think Britain needs saving, the BNP look particularly dangerous - especially if they get their act together on electoral fraud. It will indeed be ironic if they do, considering the EU - born in the wake of fascism - had the chance to clean up Britain's electoral system in 2005. And blew it.
(1) The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report on the May 2005 UK General Election, August 5, 2005, p18:
“The ODIHR is the lead agency in Europe in the field of election observation. It co-ordinates and organizes the deployment of thousands of observers every year to assess whether elections in the [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] area are in line with national legislation and international standards. Its unique methodology provides an in-depth insight into all elements of an electoral process.”
(2) UK Electoral Reform Society (ERS), Policy on e-Voting and Counting, April 2008.
From its website : “Since its foundation in 1884, the Electoral Reform Society has worked for the development of democracy not only in the United Kingdom but also abroad, promoting, organising and monitoring elections."
3) Open Rights Group (ORG): report into the May 2007 English and Scottish elections, June 2007, p63: “The Open Rights Group is a fast-growing NGO focused on raising awareness of issues such as privacy, identity, data protection, access to knowledge and copyright reform.”
(4) Council of Europe (CoE), Venice Commission report, ‘Application to initiate a monitoring procedure to investigate electoral fraud in the United Kingdom,’ January 9, 2008. http://www.assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2008/electoral_fraud_UK_E.pdf
From the CoE website : “The European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, is the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters."
(5) Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL), 12th Report, April 2008.
From website: “The Committee on Standards in Public Life is an independent public body which advises government on ethical standards across the whole of public life in the UK.”
This is the first report by the new chairman Sir Christopher Kelly. His predecessor, Sir Alistair Graham, was sacked by Tony Blair in April 2007 after criticism of his government’s attitude to standards of integrity in public life as having ‘a low-priority’.
(6) As a result of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act of 2002, the UK Government closed some of these loopholes, but only for Northern Ireland: individual voter registration replaced household voter registration, and the requirement for photographic proof of identity in the polling station was brought in. UK Electoral Commission: ‘Electoral Fraud Act 2002: an assessment of its first year in operation,’ December 2003. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/election/electoralcommission1203sum.pdf
As a result of the tighter identity checking, the number of voters fell by 10% as the bogus identities dropped off the electoral roll. CoE report, note 68, p10
(7) CoE report, note 21, p5
(8) Open Rights Group, ‘Observer Handbook (ORG Handbook): May 2007 Elections’, April 20, 2007, p2
“Unsupervised voting includes postal voting and Internet voting. Such remote methods can be done in unsupervised areas such as home or work where others can influence or steal votes. The secrecy of the ballot cannot be maintained and there is the potential for ‘family voting’ whereby the head of the family casts the entire family’s votes on their behalf.”
(9) CoE report, note 85, p12-13: “The main underlying weakness of the electoral system in the Great Britain is the current household registration system without personal identifiers. This system makes it extremely easy to add bogus characters to the voters’ lists. All a head of household has to do is to add a number of names on the yearly canvas form. The Registration Officers have only limited power to check these names and the absence of personal identifiers makes any checking of these names an all but impossible task. Therefore, as long as the names on the registration form are not overly frivolous, and the number of bogus entries is not unrealistically large in comparison to the residency in question, all names will be de facto accepted on face value and added to the voters’ list."
(10) CSPL, p10: “In the Committee’s view, the safeguards introduced by the Government in the 2006 to combat electoral fraud are easily bypassed because of the fundamental weaknesses in the current system of electoral registration. In most cases the information supplied on completed electoral registration forms is taken at face value, and few checks are carried out at polling stations to verify a voter’s identity."
(11) CoE report, note 89, p13
(12) CoE report, note 91, p13: “The fact that a person is legally allowed to be registered on the voters’ lists in more than one locality offers another opening for electoral fraud. Although its is illegal to vote more than once in the same national election, the onus on not doing so is completely on the voter itself. While it would be physically difficult to vote in person in multiple polling stations in different localities, the postal vote arrangements make it childishly simple to do so, and equally difficult to detect.’ "
(13) ODIHR report, p8: “Postal voting presents challenges with regard to the secrecy of the vote, and the possibility of undue pressure on voters at the time of marking the ballot. This may be of particular concern with regard to perceived as being most vulnerable.”
See also CoE report, note 100, p14
(14) CoE report, note 32, p6: “Multi occupancy households, such as student dormitories and caring homes for the elderly, are also considered to be single households for the purpose of voter registration."
(15) CoE report, note 98, p14
(16) Times Report on Labour advising it student canvassers to destroy opposition votes in Leeds: ‘Get the votes and we can win, but don't get caught with them,’ TimesOnline, 29 April 2007. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1719968.ece
The Council of Europe report, p5, note26, also states that when the police found the two Labour candidates in the Birmingham warehouse with the thousands of completed postal voting packs they were either altering or destroying votes for other candidates.
(17) The Department of Constitutional Affairs became the Department of Justice on May 9, 2007 after assuming some of the duties of the Home Office.
(18) ERS report, p3: “When votes are cast outside a polling station the secrecy of the ballot cannot be assured and there can be no guarantee that the elector did not suffer intimidation or was offered a bribe while voting."
(19) ORG Handbook, p2
(20) ERS report, p4: “Being a form of remote voting, it compromises the secrecy of the ballot, significantly increasing the risks of voter intimidation, bribery and impersonation. The Society therefore opposes the introduction of internet, text and telephone voting at present."
(21) ORG Report, p13: “In most locations computer screens were positioned too far away from barriers to be observable or were turned away from view so they couldn’t be observed."
(22) ORG Report, p3: “ORG is concerned that the lack of reliable audit trails, the actions of some vendors that left no audit trail and a general reluctance to perform manual counts to conﬁrm the results of e-counting mean that there is no meaningful way to verify that voters’ intentions had been accurately counted."
(23) ORG report, p1: “E-voting is a ‘black box system’, where the mechanisms for recording and tabulating the vote are hidden from the voter. This makes public scrutiny impossible, and leaves statutory elections open to error and fraud.”
p20: “No matter what access was provided, fundamentally the servers are opaque to the human eye. No observer would be able to examine what the server was doing, what data it was sending and receiving or whether problems were occurring, without detailed technical access to the software and its operating system, yet it would be inappropriate and is clearly against guidelines for observers to handle anything to do with the running of the election. Hence ORG must conclude that the servers and their operations were—and will remain in future elections—unobservable."
(24) ERS report, p4: “The use of internet, text message and telephone voting seriously compromises the security of an election, both because: It is vulnerable to hackers and other attacks on the electoral system by those who might want to influence the outcome by interfering with the equipment or software"
(25) Among other things, the UK Electoral Administration Act 2006 allowed independent observers at UK elections for the first time, in line with most democracies. It also brought in identity-checks on all postal votes, checking date of birth and signature against those provided (but not verified for authenticity) at the time of voter registration. There is nothing to guarantee that any of these identities are real.
(26) CoE report, note 84, p12: “It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud. The 2006 changes to the electoral law only partially addressed this vulnerability."
(27) David Maddox, ‘SNP raises doubts on Glenrothes as inquiry launched into by-election,’ The Scotsman, February 4, 2009.
(28) Electoral Commission Report on the Glenrothes By-Election, p13.
(29) CPSL, p10