Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rowntree repro

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust yesterday published a report entitled "On the Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern" The key findings are listed in the executive summary:

"• Experienced election observers have raised serious concerns about how well UK election
procedures measure up to international standards.
• There have been at least 42 convictions for electoral fraud in the UK in the period
• Greater use of postal voting has made UK elections far more vulnerable to fraud and
resulted in several instances of large-scale fraud.
• There is widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the
accuracy of the UK’s electoral registers – the poor state of the registers potentially
compromises the integrity of the ballot.
• There is a genuine risk of electoral integrity being threatened by previously robust
systems of electoral administration having reached ‘breaking point’ as a result of
pressures imposed in recent years.
• Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in
1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal
• The benefits of postal and electronic voting have been exaggerated, particularly in
relation to claims about increased turnout and social inclusion.
• There is substantial evidence to suggest that money can have a powerful impact on the
outcome of general elections, particularly where targeted at marginal constituencies
over sustained periods of time.
• Outside of ministerial circles, there is a widespread view that a fundamental overhaul of
UK electoral law, administration and policy is urgently required."

And the conclusions:
"The relative lack of research into electoral processes in theUK, particularly prior to 2000, is striking.
In particular, it would appear that the previously widespread assumption that British elections
were ‘free and fair’ has meant that there has effectively been no research on electoral
malpractice in the UK (Stewart, 2006).Moreover, despite the enormous volume, and high quality,
of research conducted and commissioned by the Electoral Commission since 2000, significant
areas of the evidence base remains virtually non-existent. This dearth of research has
constituted a major failing in the context of rapidly changing electoral policy in the UK. All too
often, genuine concerns have been dismissed on the basis that there is ‘no evidence’ to underpin
the claims beingmade or that the only evidence available ismerely anecdotal. In actual fact,
the evidence base is arguably too deficient to establish anything other than ‘working hypotheses’
about a number of key issues such as the state of the electoral registers or trends in electoral
malpractice in the UK.

While there is no hard evidence suggesting a significant increase in electoral malpractice since
2000, the extension of postal voting has significantly enhanced the vulnerability of UK elections
to large-scale fraud. It is equally clear that absentee voting of any form significantly
increases the risk of fraud and the scale of fraud that it potentially possible. The Birmingham election
court of 2005 demonstrates that the control of a major city council or the outcome of a parliamentary
contest could be influenced by the scale of fraud that was rendered possible by postal
voting. Electoral legislation has had to play ‘catch up’ with this reality in recent years, although
there is widespread agreement that the provisions introduced by the Electoral Administration
Act 2006 still fall short of what is required. As such, it is difficult to refute the view recently
expressed by the former Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the government
appears to be ‘in denial’ about the challenges to the integrity of UK elections.

Reforms introduced with the intention of raising turnout have,without doubt, dented public confidence
in the electoral system,which as already low by European standards. Instead of engaging with
such concerns, the government reiterated its determination in November 2007 to “further
develop our electoral modernisation strategy”, using existing legislative provisions and further
piloting of alternative electoral arrangements. It is the centrality of the concern to find a relatively
‘quick fix’ to the problem of declining turnouts, particularly among ministers, that has
caused such a variety of genuine concerns, and valid evidence, to be overlooked. Randall (2005,
p.409) has argued the consistent tendency to refute the validity of such concerns suggests that
“group think was apparent in the way in which the reform of the system was proposed, accepted
and adopted in the late 1990s”. Most significantly, the likelihood of such fraud occurring
could have been predicted on the basis of evidence of growing proxy vote fraud during the 1990s.

At the same time, there is an urgent need for all those involved in UK elections to accept that
the causes of low turnout are far more fundamental that the extent to which voting procedures
are ‘modern’ or ‘convenient’, although the role of such factors should not be dismissed entirely.
Ironically, however, some of the core reasons for declining turnout may well arise from the
patterns of party funding that have become clearer as a result of the requirements of PPERA
2000. In particular, emerging evidence points to the interplay between the ‘First Past the Post’
system of elections and the geographical contrasts in local campaign spending as a potentially
significant factor in explaining low turnout in many constituencies. Appendix A to this report
presents a brief case study of the 2005General Election on Merseyside,which highlights the possible
relationship between turnout and geographical variations in local campaign spending.
One of the most damaging legacies of these reforms has been their negative impact on electoral
administration. As the Electoral Commission (2007c) state: “in many areas of the UK we
have noted concerns that the current structure for the delivery of electoral administration is
close to breaking point and we believe it is insufficiently robust and coordinated to meet the
challenges of elections in the twenty-first century”. However, the extent to which these issues
have been considered seriously by ministers and civil servants is difficult to gauge. Certainly, it
would appear that little account was apparently taken of the fragile state of electoral administration
arrangements in the Prime Minister’s initial plans to call a snap general election. The
nature of the ‘lucky escape’ represented by the ‘General Election that never was’ is underpinned
by the fact that the conclusions reached in this report reinforce the findings of a number of recent
reviews and commentaries on British electoral procedures.As such, the recommendations of the
Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of the work of the Electoral Commission, as well
as the Commission’s subsequent response to these recommendations, and to the Gould report
on the Scottish elections in 2007, provide at least part of the route map towards future reform.
The Electoral Commission has signalled its intention to lead a detailed review of the current legal
and policy frameworks for elections in the UK. This is a welcome initiative and, outside of ministerial
circles, there is widespread appetite for such a debate.

It would be presumptuous to seek to pre-empt the conclusions which may be reached by the
Electoral Commission’s review. However, in relation to legislative frameworks, the possibility
cannot be dismissed that root and branch reform of British electoral law and administration is
required, as opposed to further consolidation of legislation and administrative procedures originating
in the nineteenth century. The nature of this task may be less onerous than it would seem.
It has been widely noted in recent reviews of UK election procedures that many viable solutions
to the problems that have emerged in recent years are already in place in one part of the UK. In
parallel with the broader reviews of electoral processes in the UK carried out after Labour came
to power in 1997, separate reviews were undertaken examining the issues arising from the experience
of elections in Northern Ireland. These reviews included the report of the Northern Ireland
Affairs Select Committee (1998) on Electoral Malpractice in Northern Ireland and the Northern
Ireland Office’s (1998) report Administering Elections in Northern Ireland. These inquiries were
undertaken because of a widespread concern that, in contrast to the rest of the UK, electoral
malpractice remained widespread in Northern Ireland, despite the measures introduced in the
Elections (Northern Ireland) Act of 1985. Yet despite the widespread perception that electoral
malpractice was taking place in specific parts of the province, concrete evidence of fraud proved

Despite the lack of clear evidence, the Northern Ireland Select Committee took the view that it
was likely that electoralmalpractice was a serious problemin Northern Ireland and required the
introduction of urgent measures to minimise the scope for ‘vote stealing’. At the centre of this
analysis was a concern about the extent of inaccuracies in the electoral register, particularly the
‘inflation’ of the register throughmultiple and false entries. The Select Committee recommended
measures to improve the accuracy of electoral registers and tighter controls over absentee
voting in Northern Ireland. As a result, the provisions in the Representation of the People Act
2000 for absentee voting (postal voting on demand) and for electoral pilots were not extended
toNorthern Ireland. Instead, the recommendations of the Select Committeewere translated into
the 2001 White Paper ‘Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland’ and ultimately formed
the basis for the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002...

...over the past decade, electoral reforms introduced in Northern Ireland
have provided formore accurate electoral registers, strengthened the role of electoral administration,
sharply reduced accusations ofmalpractice, and raised public confidence in the electoral
process. Introducing the second reading of The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill in the
House of Commons on 10 July 2001, Desmond Browne MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary
of State for Northern Ireland, justified the new measures in the following terms:

“There has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern
Ireland. The Government have a commitment to protecting the right to free and fair elections.
Of course, electoral fraud is a crime. Electoral abuse is an affront to democracy and we are
determined to combat it wherever it occurs. If there is a high level of abuse, or even if people
only fear that that is the case, the democratic process will be under threat.We do not want voters
in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections
are unfair.” (Hansard, 10 July 2001, Column 688)

Seven years on, very few of those involved in administering elections in the UK would be likely
to quibble if the very same words were used to justify significant change to electoral law in the
rest of the country."

Meanwhile ORG will be monitoring the e-count at this weeks local and mayoral elections in London.

"The Open Rights Group (ORG) will send 30 official monitors to observe the elections for the mayor and members of the Greater London Assembly (GLA).

Under an agreement with the Electoral Commission and London Elects, which manages the election on behalf of the GLA, they will monitor polling stations, and activities at the three sites where the count will take place.

ORG opposes the introduction of electronic voting in UK elections, and recommends that all electronic counts be subject to a random manual audit on count day. In May of last year it monitored e-voting and e-counting in local elections in England and Scotland, following which it published a highly critical report."

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