British poll workers have minimal means of detecting election fraud

While the Conservative government’s Queen’s speech has fairly been derided as an election broadcast by other means, one policy has been taken seriously: a pledge to introduce an ID requirement for voting in elections.

The Tories’ plans would bring England, Scotland and Wales in line with Northern Ireland, which already requires voters to present ID before they are given a ballot paper. The government has also said it would provide free ID cards to those that lack things like a driving licence – which remains a common alternative in a country that lacks national ID cards.

The origins of this policy lie in a 2016 paper by the then anti-corruption champion Eric Pickles, in turn a response to electoral fraud and corruption in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, much of it revolving around local mayor Lutfur Rahman.

Electoral practitioners and campaigners believe Britain’s electoral system is due some reform, particularly around joining up electoral registers, simplifying the relevant law, and – most ambitiously – introducing a more proportional voting system. But there is little systemic evidence of electoral fraud.

The Electoral Commission says in its review of 2018 electoral data: “There is no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud relating to the 2018 local elections. Of the 266 cases that were investigated by the police, one led to a conviction and two suspects were given police cautions.”

Against the votes being tallied these are tiny numbers. A 2018 survey of poll workers reported electoral fraud as the least prevalent concern, with only 1% suspecting instances of it, and some of those attributing it to administrative errors.

This is despite the fact that there are few safeguards in place to prevent ‘personation’, to use the legal jargon for pretending to be someone else and stealing their vote. A national insurance number is required to register to vote, but to obtain a ballot paper on polling day you need only give a name and address, unless you’re in Northern Ireland.

A 2010 report on UK elections by international monitors said: “While the system functions overall well under these conditions, concerns are regularly expressed with regard to the lack of safeguards against possible fraud resultant from a weak system of voter registration and postal voting, compounded by the absence of a requirement to produce identification at any stage of the process [except for Northern Ireland].”

What we seem to have is a situation that is open for abuse but with little evidence to suggest it is being abused. That in mind, I asked the Electoral Commission what means polling staff had for detecting that personation was happening.

“By law the poll staff must read out an elector’s name and number when they identify themselves in a polling station. One way that this could prevent personation is that other people in the polling station may hear this information, and may know that a person is not who they have said they are,” the commission spokesman said. Candidates’ polling agents, who are also allowed at the station, may also notice that something is amiss.

This strikes me as a laughable means of detecting electoral fraud, especially for constituencies with a high rate of electoral churn. Even if a poll worker believes fraud is being committed, they are restricted to asking whether the prospective fraudster is the registered voter they claim to be and whether they have already voted. If these questions are answered satisfactorily a ballot paper must be issued, and if the worker is still suspicious all they can do is report it.

Given the labour involved in conducting electoral fraud in person at scale, it still seems likely to me that it is rare. To have an effect on an election there would have to be significant co-ordination, which itself would raise the risk of being discovered, not least because statistical analysis of results might show something was amiss.

But even so, these checks are embarrassing for a mature country, and it seems wrong that the state is so cavalier about the prospect of people’s votes being stolen. Should the government ever get round to fully reforming our electoral system, something should be done about it.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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