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What will the international observers make of the British way of doing elections?

What will the international observers make of the British way of doing elections?

🕔08.Jun 2017

Today, as voters go to the polls, Chris Game reflects on the integrity of our electoral system and it’s international standing. 

When I used to lecture undergraduates, particularly overseas groups, I would describe in detail the process of casting my vote – and watch as they came increasingly to suspect I was misleading them, or at least exaggerating.

First, I’d show them the poll card I’d received from the City Council Elections Office, with my name, address, bar code and electoral register number – plus the friendly advice that “You do not need to take this card with you in order to vote”. That was OK – the overseas students naturally assumed I’d need some more substantial ID.

Surely, as in their countries, I’d require some permutation of signature, photo, driving licence, passport, birth certificate, social security card, etc., even if not – this usually from Africans and Latin Americans – biometric fingerprint or iris identification? And they’d stare with increasing disbelief as I repeatedly shook my head in response to their suggestions.

Coming on to the polling station, I would describe how I’d give my name and address. Then how, to speed up the search process by the essentially untrained staff, I’d just point to it as I saw it on their register – while also noting the names of those neighbours in my small block of flats who’d not yet had their names crossed through as having voted.

Yes, I had to admit, it would be dead easy to recruit perhaps even some of them to impersonate these neighbours, and, who knows, with us all living in one of the city’s most marginal constituencies, maybe even influence the result.

And I’d have to explain that we’re English, that we’ve been a full parliamentary democracy for 89 or 99 years, and it’s only Northern Ireland that requires some form of photo ID before we vote – and only very new democracies, like Cambodia, who held their local elections last weekend, who feel it necessary to furnish indelible evidence of citizens having done so.








So back to the polling station, where the clerk tells me my name, address and the elector number on my poll card, which is then written on the corresponding number list alongside the ballot paper number.

Whereupon the ballot paper is handed to me, but only after checking that it’s got its UIM – unique identifying mark. This is likely to be pre-printed, but traditionally was stamped on the spot with a special franking instrument – though occasionally not, which would regularly lead to otherwise perfectly valid votes eventually being rejected.

The clue to the UIM is in the name, but, were I to question it, it would elicit the assurance that it’s purely “for security”, and that, as with so much else under that heading nowadays, I shouldn’t be worried, as it would never be used actually to trace my personal ballot paper. “Be assured, sir, the ballot is entirely secret.”

Part of which is kind of true, and part a downright lie. It’s secret in the sense that you mark your ballot paper in the privacy of a voting booth – and you MUST, MUST NOT take selfies or use cameras or smartphones anywhere remotely in the vicinity of polling stations.

The Electoral Commission is obsessed about this aspect of secrecy, but seemingly rather less so about the obvious potential traceability of those voting for, say, what a government might decide are extremist parties.

This involves someone simply getting hold of the used and numbered ballot papers, now stored in convenient party bundles in their North London warehouse, and matching them to the similarly numbered counterfoils which also have the voters’ electoral register numbers.

The UIM business dates back to 1872, when it was supposed to guard against worker intimidation by landlords and bosses, and the tracing and matching can of course be done officially, through a request from a special Election Court. But here’s the thing: in the 145-year history of the ‘secret’ ballot, the number of such requests from the Court has been … precisely zero.

Yet, 16 years after responsibility for election administration was finally transferred from the security-driven Home Office to an independent Electoral Commission, we still retain this pathetic, irritating and pointless practice that I suspect would be high on the list of things that electoral administrators themselves would most like to see reformed.

Moreover, together with successive governments’ ultra-casual approach to voter identification, it’s at least part of the reason why I’m able to make the one election prediction I’d dare attempt so close to Polling Day itself – that the monitoring and eventual assessment of the 2017 UK election by international observers and experts will once again put the UK at the bottom of the Global Electoral Integrity rankings of Western European countries.

Election monitoring nowadays is a small global industry. Among numerous others, there’s the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, who, as in 2015, are here in Birmingham, observing particularly the proceedings in Ladywood.

Plus the only one with which I have even a peripheral personal involvement, the essentially academic Electoral Integrity Project (EIP). Operating worldwide, EIP ranks elections against its set of international standards of electoral integrity, asserts with evidence what happens when elections fail to meet these standards, and identifies ways in which they could.

And they REALLY don’t think much of UK elections or our systemic electoral integrity. Which can be personally slightly embarrassing, as I brace myself annually for headlines like: “UK scores worst in electoral integrity in Western Europe”.

And for the damning league tables, where we’re permanent fixtures in the relegation zone with a current Perceived Electoral Integrity score in the mid-60s: behind not just the usual Scandinavian suspects – all in the 80s – but even Spain, Italy and Greece, plus plenty of far newer democracies like Estonia, Croatia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Tonga, Tunisia and Benin.









So what don’t EIP and the other monitors like? For a start, obviously, our grotesquely disproportional electoral system – UKIP’s nearly 4 million votes in the 2015 election, earning one MP, while Labour’s 9 million “racked up” (their phrase) 232.

Then there’s the Government’s handling of the transition to individual voter registration, and the resulting discouragement of participation by particular groups, including students and ethnic minorities.

And the 500+ electoral fraud allegations recorded by the police following the 2015 election. And the 20+ Conservative MPs facing, until after the start of the present election campaign, the threat of prosecution over their expenses at the last one.

The PM’s instant response to the lifting of this threat on all but Thanet MP, Craig Mackinlay, was characteristic and instructive. No one at all had done anything wrong – not “my candidates”, not the national party that the Electoral Commission had already fined a record £70,000 for “numerous failures” in reporting both General Election and by-election expenses. No one, that is, except the Crown Prosecution Service for wasting police time with its year-long “witch hunt”.

It was straight from the David Cameron playbook. For him the fine had been contemptibly trivial. Only a small percentage of total spending hadn’t been declared, and besides, other parties had been fined in the past.

And it’s this almost colonial superiority, with which our senior politicians are inclined to treat both such criticisms of entrenched British practices and their authors, that, as much the democratic deficiencies themselves, frustrates these frequently highly qualified international observers. They must sense that nothing they criticise or propose will change anything of significance.

The big ones are familiar. Electoral system: the two big parties have too much vested interest in First-Past-The-Post. Incomplete electoral registers: so what, when most of those omitted aren’t going to vote for us anyway.

It’s the smaller ones that are more revealing, like two OSCE recommendations following the 2015 election. First, that the online registration system be modified to enable voters to verify their registration status, including their eligibility for different elections. It wasn’t, of course, and councils were predictably swamped with thousands of duplicate registration applications prior to the May 29 deadline.

Second OSCE priority, that the unique identifying mark be removed from ballot papers. Take a look – as ever, it’ll be there.

Editor’s Note: don’t let the issues of our electoral system and administration put you off! Please do vote: the polling stations are open until 10pm tonight. 

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